As the novel coronavirus spreads through China, time is of the essence, and researchers around the world are joining forces to find a speedy cure.
While there is no effective medication or vaccine yet, scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, China and elsewhere are making substantial progress and many existing drugs are being tested in clinical trials for potency against the coronavirus.
The World Laureates Association Shanghai Center said it has gathered a team of experts, including Nobel laureates in chemistry Roger Kornberg and Michael Levitt, antibody expert Richard Lerner and biologist Raymond Dewk, to help investigate the virus and propose new solutions.
“They’re willing to actively exert international scientific talent to support China in combating the epidemic,” the center said in a statement on Monday.
There are two ways of treating a viral infection. One is using small molecule drugs that can stop the virus from replicating by interfering with its proteins. The other way is to use antibodies that bind to the virus and cause it to self-destruct, according to the World Health Organization.
Zhong Nanshan, one of the leading experts tackling the outbreak in China, told Xinhua News Agency on Sunday that there are at least seven small molecule drugs going through clinical trials in China.
On Sunday, Beijing’s China-Japan Friendship Hospital said it will begin clinical trials on 270 moderately ill patients infected with the virus in Wuhan, Hubei province, using an experimental drug from the US called remdesivir, which was originally developed as an Ebola cure.
China’s Center for Drug Evaluation of the National Medical Products Administration approved the trials on Sunday to be carried out from Monday to April 27, its website said.
The drug is developed by US biotech company Gilead Sciences. It was provided to a 35-year-old man in the US infected with the novel coronavirus, and his symptoms noticeably improved within a day with no obvious side effects, according to a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week.
The US drugmaker said last week it is working closely with health authorities in China and around the world to respond to the latest outbreak.
Qian Jiahua, chief scientist at the drug evaluation center, told Chinese science news outlet Intellectual that the clinical trial period in China can be shortened if remdesivir produces the impressive results seen in multiple test patients. “I think we should move with caution before mass administering it to a demographic as diverse and complex as the Chinese people,” he said.
Zeng Weigen, a doctor at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, said remdesivir has proved to be effective on one US patient with symptoms of pneumonia, but it will require more clinical trials to confirm its potency against the virus.
Scientists are also testing a cocktail of flu and HIV drugs that has showed potential in curbing the coronavirus. Thailand’s Ministry of Health said on Sunday that Thai doctors have seen apparent success treating a 71-year-old woman infected with the virus.
They used a combination of the flu drug oseltamivir with lopinavir and ritonavir－antivirals used to treat HIV. The patient’s health significantly improved and she tested negative for the virus 48 hours after it was administered.
Hospitals in Beijing have reportedly been using the same HIV drugs as part of treatment for the novel coronavirus, though it is unclear if they have been successful.
Zhang Dingyu, president of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, said at a news briefing on Sunday that HIV drugs like lopinavir have kept severely ill patients at his hospital from worsening.
Since the outbreak, the National Institutes of Health in the US along with around a dozen US biotech companies, have announced vaccine or drug development initiatives for the novel coronavirus.
Mark Denison, a virologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told the journal Science that remdesivir has to be administered early in order to have significant impact on the disease.
US biotech companies such as Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Vir Biotechnology have announced they are creating such antibodies to target the novel coronavirus, but it will likely take months before they can carry out clinical trials.
Chinese and US researchers are also working together to develop a vaccine against the virus. The researchers include experts from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the University of Texas, and Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Song Zhiheng, deputy director of Zhejiang province’s Science and Technology Department, said scientists have isolated 10 viral strains that can be used to create vaccines.
Lu Shan, a medical professor at the University of Massachusetts, told China News Weekly that SARS and the novel coronavirus shared many similarities, and by building on previous vaccine research on SARS, vaccine development for the new virus should see some progress soon.