12 Feb 2020

The Ebola treatment that may work against coronavirus

From Checkpoint, 6:09 pm on 12 February 2020

An American scientist is hopeful a human clinical trial in China will prove an anti-viral drug originally tested on Ebola will work against coronavirus.

Chinese media is reporting more than 700 patients with the virus are now part of a randomised trial where two thirds of the participants will receive the drug Remdesivir while others will get standard treatments.

Neither the doctors or the patients will know who has received the drug until after the trial.

Professor of Epidemiology Doctor Tim Sheahan has spent five years lab-testing Remdesivir against other coronaviruses - MERS and SARS.

"The next step would be a human clinical trial, and that's what is happening now in China," he told Checkpoint.

"It's something I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime, where something that I have done in the lab goes on to be tested in a person."

The drug has already been tested on people for treating Ebola, but this is the first time Remdesivir has been used in humans to treat the latest coronavirus, which is officially named Covid-19.

The death toll from coronavirus is now at least 1107.

"What viruses do is they use the building blocks inside of our cells to replicate new viruses, and what Remdesivir does is basically stop that process," Professor Sheahan said.

"It's kind of like a 'Trojan horse' where it gums up the works of the virus using our building blocks and it ends up making defective copies of itself that don't work."

It is hard to predict how long it will take before the testing on patients delivers results, "but I would imagine they'll have some insight on whether it works or not in weeks to months", he said.

"It's a really interesting drug because it's a broad spectrum anti-viral, so it works not only against coronavirus, it works against Ebola virus and other viruses."

China has built a makeshift hospital in 10 days to battle against the novel strain of coronavirus in Wuhan.

China has built a makeshift hospital in 10 days to battle against the novel strain of coronavirus in Wuhan. Photo: AFP

Professor Sheahan told Checkpoint he was confident the drug will work.

"I have first-hand working knowledge with this drug so as far as the things that I've tested so far, this is the best thing that I've seen for coronavirus.

"So I'm hopeful that it will work but it's hard to say until the data comes out of these trials, whether it's working or not."

Remdesivir has gone through safety testing and Dr Sheahan said he does not think there is a risk for those taking it.

"The very basic testing that you need to use medications like this in people has been done, so it's not like it's a completely experimental thing that hasn't jumped through these hoops.

"I could see this being used in two different ways, so it could be used in patients who are sick, to try and save their lives or lessen their symptoms or make their disease shorter.

"But I could see if you have healthcare workers getting sick in a hospital setting, I could see it getting used for healthcare workers, nurses and doctors to try and limit the spread in those people who are taking care of the sick people.

"I would have no hesitation taking it if things got that bad. But it's hard to say where this is going to go, if it's going to be a pandemic or not."

There have also been reports of HIV drugs have been trialled as treatments for coronavirus.

"I have personally experienced testing these HIV drugs against coronavirus and they don't work as well as you would want them to work, definitely not as well as Remdesivir," Professor Sheahan said.

"These HIV drugs are made to be specific for HIV. So when you take a medication like that, that's very specific and really potent against one virus."

Trying to use that treatment against another virus is not effective, he said.

"The likelihood of that working is low unless they're really similar genetically and they're not. HIV and coronavirus are not similar."