Coronavirus outbreak: Drug used to treat first US patient enters human trials in Wuhan

Reports suggest that about 270 patients with mild and moderate pneumonia caused by the virus will be included in the study


                            Coronavirus outbreak: Drug used to treat first US patient enters human trials in Wuhan
(Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)

A controversial biopharmaceutical company facing a slew of lawsuits, Gilead Sciences, is teaming up with the Chinese authorities to test its experimental drug against patients infected with coronavirus or 2019-nCoV. 

According to reports, the company will be testing remdesivir -- an Ebola virus drug. This unapproved drug has worked against related viruses, MERS and SARS -- both coronaviruses that are structurally similar to 2019-nCoV -- but only in tests conducted in labs and on animals. Gilead is working with health authorities in China to establish a human trial to determine whether remdesivir can safely and effectively be used to treat 2019-nCoV, reads a statement from the company.

The trial will take place in Wuhan -- the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. China has more than 20,000 infected cases, with a death toll of 425.

This announcement boosted Gilead's standing: the company saw an increase in its share value by as much as 8.7% in New York, their biggest intraday gain since November 2012.  The company's stock underperformed last year, reports Bloomberg.

Test on the first US coronavirus patient

Gilead has tested its experimental drug on a patient before: on the first American coronavirus patient. Doctors cited  "compassionate use", which means very ill or most at-risk patients are given an unapproved drug.

"To my knowledge, this is the first reported case in the world where this drug has been used in a human application against this virus," Dr Jay Cook, chief medical officer at the center, told reporters on a conference call on Friday. “At the time, we felt the benefits of using this drug outweighed whatever potential risk there might be and we obtained his informed consent,” he added.

A group of doctors presented the US man's case in their recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlighting his symptoms and treatment, which included remdesivir. In it, they explain that the patient showed improvements in his symptoms: he remains hospitalized, showing no signs of fever and other symptoms -- barring cough, which is also getting less severe, the doctors report.

China has more than 20,000 infected cases, with a death toll of 425. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

But some are skeptical of the drug's effects: analysts at Raymond James think it is too early to say whether remdesivir had indeed helped the US man. The virus had already started to recede before the patient was given the medication, they wrote in a note to clients Monday, according to Bloomberg.

The doctors, who treated the US patient, believe an elaborate human trial could provide all the necessary answers. "Although a decision to administer remdesivir for compassionate use was based on the case patient’s worsening clinical status, randomized controlled trials are needed to determine the safety and efficacy of remdesivir and any other investigational agents for the treatment of patients with 2019-nCoV infection," they write in their study. 

Human trials in China

The China human trial is tasked with doing just that: a randomized control trial.  This form of an experiment divides participants randomly into two groups: one group will receive the experimental drug, while the other could either receive a sugar pill (placebo) or conventional treatment. Reports suggest that about 270 patients with mild and moderate pneumonia caused by the virus will be included in the study.

China is also testing whether HIV drugs - lopinavir, and ritonavir - could effectively treat patients -- "on compassionate use". The doctors used these drugs against the SARS virus after they realized that HIV patients who had contracted SARS showed better signs of recovery.

Other pharmaceutical giants are also scrambling to come up with a vaccine, including Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline. Developing a vaccine will take time, with some experts believing it could take over a year. For now, however, hopes are on remdesivir to deliver.

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.