Drugmakers are racing to find medicines that can curb the spread of the coronavirus as the infection bypasses China’s travel restrictions.
Pharmaceutical companies from Gilead Sciences to Moderna are pursuing two main strategies: helping to re-purpose medicines developed against other lethal viruses from Ebola to HIV, and relying on new technologies to develop a vaccine faster than ever before.
Deaths in China climbed to at least 80 on Monday as the country announced new measures, including an extension of the Lunar New Year holiday. Chinese authorities said the new respiratory virus isn’t under control despite aggressive steps to limit movement for millions of people who live in cities near the center of the outbreak.
Gilead’s experimental Ebola treatment remdesivir is being studied to determine whether it can combat the coronavirus — a member of a family of crown-shaped viruses that includes SARS as well as some forms of the common cold. The company said by email that it’s coordinating with researchers and clinicians in the U.S. and China.
Meanwhile, doctors in China have started using a combination of AbbVie’s HIV drugs ritonavir and lopinavir at hospitals. A clinical trial is assessing whether the combination, sold under the brand name Kaletra, is more effective than an antiviral medicine known as interferon-alpha 2b in treating patients.
The use of existing drugs for a new virus, especially one whose patterns aren’t well known, is entirely experimental, and there is no guarantee of success.
A smaller company, Vir Biotechnology Inc., is also evaluating whether some of its previously developed monoclonal antibodies — proteins grown from living cells that can be used to neutralize pathogens — can be used against the coronavirus strain.
The new pathogen is believed to have emerged last month in a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, spreading from infected animals to humans. The number of cases has continued to grow within China, and patients with the infection have been found in several additional countries, including the U.S., France, Singapore, Thailand and Japan.
Scientists are still learning about the virus. The effort to track it and understand it is complicated by a stealthy incubation period of up to two weeks — during which time the infected person may have no symptoms but still be contagious — as well as the challenge of identifying those with such mild cases they don’t realize they are ill.
On the vaccine front, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, set up in 2017 to spur the development of shots for known diseases and to respond to new viruses, signed contracts with drugmakers including Moderna and Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. as early as Jan. 22 to expedite work.
“This is the first time we’ve faced the new disease scenario,” Richard Hatchett, the group’s chief executive officer, said by telephone. Speed was crucial from the start as signs pointed “dramatically in the direction of a potentially very dangerous event.”
The coalition’s backers include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced Sunday that it was committing $10 million to help responders in China and Africa curb the spread.
Financial markets briefly rewarded early efforts to contain the virus last week before focusing on the risks of a global contagion, which sent stocks, crude oil and China’s yuan tumbling Monday. Novavax Inc. experienced its biggest rally in more than 10 years last Tuesday after saying it was working on a vaccine.
Developing new medicines and vaccines takes time, which is why companies are testing existing treatments.
It will take at least a year to come up with a vaccine for the new coronavirus, according to Hatchett. That’s even if human tests can start in 16 weeks, faster than what has been possible in the past thanks to technologies like messenger RNA, which instructs the body’s cells to produce proteins that could provide protection. After that, arranging production and manufacturing of millions of doses can take another few months.
Such a timeline is “incredibly ambitious,” he said. “That’s still too long, but we want to change the game.”