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U.S. Drugmakers Ship Therapies to China, Seeking to Treat Coronavirus

U.S. Drugmakers Ship Therapies to China, Seeking to Treat Coronavirus
Jared S. Hopkins Jan. 27, 2020

AbbVie, Gilead, others respond to Chinese authorities’ requests for antiviral drugs to test effectiveness against deadly respiratory illness

U.S. drugmakers are shipping antiviral drugs to Chinese health authorities to assess whether the medicines could help contain the explosion of respiratory virus infections sweeping the country.

AbbVie Inc. and Johnson & Johnson are among the drugmakers that have begun shipping drugs approved to treat HIV, while Gilead Sciences Inc. is exploring whether it should send an antiviral therapy it is developing.

It isn’t known whether the drugs, especially one that hasn’t been approved to treat infectious disease, would be able to help patients infected with the new coronavirus. Chinese authorities have requested the shipments to test the drugs’ effectiveness.

In addition, a Chinese government commission has recommended that doctors administer AbbVie’s HIV drug, called Kaletra, to patients who have tested positive for the new illness.

There are no vaccines or drugs approved anywhere in the world specifically for the new coronavirus, prompting health authorities to explore repurposing untested antivirals in a desperate effort to help contain an outbreak that has been spreading rapidly in China and has appeared in more limited cases overseas.

Several drugmakers and academic researchers are also trying to develop vaccines, but they could take months to be ready for human testing, and even longer for wider use.

The coronavirus, which originated last month in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has infected more than 4,500 people and killed at least 106, mostly in surrounding Hubei province, with public-health officials warning that its spread is accelerating.

The number of confirmed U.S. cases has risen to five, and the federal government is working to evacuate American citizens from the epicenter in China.

On Sunday, a Chinese national health program recommended the use of a treatment from AbbVie, which the company sells under the brand names Kaletra and Aluvia, according to Beijing’s Health Commission.

The therapy, first approved two decades ago to treat HIV, combines two antiviral agents. It belongs to a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors, which block a key enzyme that helps viruses replicate.

AbbVie, which is based in the Chicago suburbs, donated about $2 million worth of Kaletra doses as an “experimental option” in response to a request by Chinese health authorities, a company spokeswoman said. She added that China, not AbbVie, is leading testing of the therapy for treating coronavirus.

A hospital in Wuhan is conducting a randomized clinical trial to assess whether Kaletra works against the new illness, researchers said in an article published Friday in The Lancet medical journal.

Researchers previously have found the drug to be effective in treating another coronavirus: A combination of the two drugs that make up Kaletra, lopinavir and ritonavir, administered to patients with SARS showed a “substantial clinical benefit,” or fewer adverse clinical outcomes, according to a 2004 study published in the Thorax medical journal.

Johnson & Johnson agreed to a request over the weekend by Chinese health authorities to ship its HIV drug Prezcobix for potential treatment of coronavirus infection, Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels said in an interview.

The therapy, which is also a protease inhibitor combining two antiviral agents, should arrive by Tuesday, he said.

“Industry can take different steps to combating this epidemic as fast as possible,” Dr. Stoffels said. Studying Prezcobix in patients who test positive for the coronavirus wouldn’t harm them, he said, and could help authorities find a treatment that works.

Dr. Stoffels said J&J is also reviewing its library of compounds, including those currently in laboratories, that could potentially provide other help to patients.

Merck & Co. assigned a team of scientists to assess whether any of the company’s internal assets might be effective against the Wuhan coronavirus, a spokesman said. Merck makes the only Ebola vaccine that has been approved by U.S. and European health authorities.

Gilead, of Foster City, Calif., is in talks with researchers and clinicians in the U.S. and China about using its experimental antiviral therapy, remdesivir, the company said. Remdesivir isn’t licensed or approved inside or outside the U.S.

Gilead said remdesivir has been active against other coronaviruses in lab and animal studies. The same drug has reduced the severity of Ebola in human patients, though by a lesser degree than two other therapies for the infectious disease.

Remdesivir also has been shown to lessen lung disease from Middle East respiratory syndrome, a coronavirus known as MERS, in mice, according to a paper published earlier this month in Nature Communications.

In addition to efforts at repurposing existing antiviral treatments, several drugmakers and some academic researchers are also racing to develop a vaccine to prevent coronavirus infections.

J&J will also try to develop a vaccine, using the same technology applied to its Ebola vaccine, currently used in Africa, Dr. Stoffels said. It could be tested in humans in eight to 12 months.

—Betsy McKay contributed to this article.

see also Inhibition of SARS CoronavirusInfection In Vitro with ClinicallyApproved Antiviral Drugs -