The best hope for coronavirus treatment is an experimental drug that fizzled against Ebola

Advertisements

Medical researchers spent much of the past year trying to save Ebola victims in Congo using a clutch of experimental drugs. Of the four medications being tested, researchers said, one demonstrated especially poor ability to save patients from the deadly virus.

The drug, called remdesivir, had blocked the Ebola virus in laboratories and in animal experiments. But it did such a bad job extending survival in humans compared to two of the other treatments that researchers decided in August not to try it on any more patients.

Advertisements

Now the drug, created by pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences, is being tested in new clinical trials, and global health authorities deem it the most promising of possible treatments for people who are severely ill with the novel coronavirus, which causes the covid-19 disease. Because it is a “broad spectrum’’ drug that has been effective against multiple viral targets in the lab and in animals, the strategy could work, experts said.

A woman who tested positive with the coronavirus is brought to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Friday March 6, 2020. She was transferred from Omaha's Methodist Hospital in an isolation pod inside an ambulance.  (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)
A woman who tested positive with the coronavirus is brought to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Friday March 6, 2020. She was transferred from Omaha’s Methodist Hospital in an isolation pod inside an ambulance. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

The drug’s journey — from failing to prolong the lives of Ebola patients in sub-Saharan Africa just last year to being rushed into coronavirus clinical trials in China and the United States this year — symbolizes a dire lack of antiviral drugs that can fight emerging infectious threats.

As the outbreak spreads worldwide, a vaccine to prevent infection remains at least a year away. Meanwhile, there is no approved treatment to stop the virus once someone is infected, and the severe and sometimes fatal respiratory distress that afflicts a minority of patients.

The hope is that remdesivir will show better results with the coronavirus than it did with Ebola, which is from a different viral family, officials said. The first trial results could be available in April.

Advertisements

Gilead, the National Institutes of Health and Chinese health authorities are racing to test it on hundreds of people in controlled clinical trials, including a patient who was quarantined in Nebraska after being removed from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Axios reported this month that Gilead acted so quickly that it did not even wait for required approval by the Food and Drug Administration before it shipped doses to China. Asked to respond, Gilead said it thinks its “limited shipments’’ were made in compliance with U.S. law.