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Coronavirus: Treatment drugs showing promise in the hunt for an antiviral answer

Remdesivir is an antiviral drug in development that has been showing promising results.

Image: Shutterstock/StockphotoVideo

AS CASES OF Covid-19 continue to rise in Ireland and in most countries across the world, the hunt for antiviral drugs and other treatment methods is accelerating. 

According to Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at the Texas A&M University-Texarkana, there has never been a very successful human vaccine against any coronavirus. 

“This is going to be a lot of trial, a lot of error,” Neuman said.

Dr Colm Henry from the HSE said yesterday that the “prospect of a widely available vaccine is at least 12 to 18 months off”.

Other treatments could come sooner than a vaccine, however, with antiviral drug Remdesivir showing early promise and already being used to treat some patients abroad. 

Chair of biochemistry in Trinity College Dublin, Professor Luke O’Neill, has been keeping up to date with the latest developments in trials on treatment drugs for Covid-19.  

“The good news is that there are lots of drugs in development,” O’Neill told TheJournal.ie. 

His main hope is that an antiviral drug able to kill the virus directly will be fully developed. 

“[An antiviral drug] could supersede anything else – if someone tests positive you could give them it directly or use it as a protective measure,” he said.

These drugs would target the virus SARS-CoV-2 which is the name of the coronavirus causing the Covid-19 disease.

Healthcare workers, for example, could take the antiviral drug to prevent them from becoming infected in the first place. 

Remdesivir gets modified inside the human body to become similar to one of the four building blocks of DNA, called nucleotides. 

When viruses copy themselves, they do it quickly which means they might incorporate Remdevisir into their structure. Human cells, which are more careful, would not make this mistake. 

If the virus incorporates the Remdesivir into itself, the drug adds unwanted mutations that can destroy the virus.

This is not a new drug – it was developed to fight other viruses including Ebola. It was shown to be ineffective at treating Ebola and has not yet been approved for anything else.  

The drug has shown early promise in treating some Covid-19 patients in China, according to doctors, and the company that owns it is moving ahead with final-stage clinical trials in Asia. 

The treatment has also been used on at least one US patient so far.

Anthony Fauci, one of the top US government scientists overseeing the coronavirus response, has said the drug could be available in the next “several months.”

“There’s only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy. And that’s remdesivir,” said Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official at a recent press conference in China.

Other options

Other drugs like Actemra, which is an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, have also been used to treat Covid-19 patients. 

O’Neill said there is “data to suggest” this drug would work on a wider scale in reducing inflammation in Covid-19 patients.  

A recent Chinese study on Tocilizumab, another name for Actemra, in treating Covid-19 cases in China showed fever and other symptoms reducing “remarkably” after a few days of treatment.

“When you get severe Covid-19, the lungs get very inflamed and it can lead to something called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). People die because their lungs stop working and the big question is whether you can slow this down,” O’Neill said. 

The World Health Organization recommended today that people suffering from Covid-19-like symptoms should avoid self-medicating with ibuprofen, after French authorities warned anti-inflammatory drugs could worsen the effects of the virus.

The warnings over the weekend by French Health Minister Olivier Veran followed a recent study in The Lancet weekly medical journal which hypothesised that anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen boost a certain enzyme that could facilitate and worsen Covid-19 infections. 

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Asked about the study, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said that the UN health agency’s experts were “looking into this to give further guidance.”

“In the meantime, we recommend using paracetamol, and do not use ibuprofen as a self-medication. That’s important,” he said. 

However, the HSE yesterday advised anyone with Covid-19 to continue taking any medication they were already taking unless told otherwise by a healthcare professional.

This advice includes anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, naproxen or diclofenac.

The HSE said “false information” about these medications in relation to Covid-19 had been circulating online recently. 

Luke O’Neill said there was no evidence at the moment linking ibuprofen with worsened Covid-19 symptoms.

Ibuprofen is used to bring the body temperature down in coronavirus patients and reduce fever, which is one of the symptoms of Covid-19. 

Actemra is a more powerful anti-inflammatory drug than things like ibuprofen. 

When inflammation occurs in the lungs, which can happen with Covid-19, white blood cells rush from the bloodstream into the lungs. 

“The white blood cells are trying to make it better, but in this case there are too many of them,” he said, comparing it to “a whole army” of white blood cells entering the lungs. 

Anti-inflammatory treatments such as Actemra try to decrease these white blood cell counts. 

Whether it’s through anti-inflammatory medication or an antiviral drug to stop the virus in its tracks, finding a treatment for Covid-19 remains to be a work in progress. 

With reporting by AFP. 

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