Latest News

Feds tout drug candidates to treat COVID-19


Therapeutics could be available in the near term to help treat COVID-19 patients, according to President Donald Trump.

Illustration shows ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 novel coronavirus. Courtesy CDC

During a March 19 press briefing, the president highlighted two drugs that could be put into play in the battle against the virus.

The first product is hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), a drug used to treat malaria and severe arthritis, is showing promise as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

“The nice part is it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody,” President Trump said. “When you go with a brand-new drug, you don’t know that that’s going to happen,” adding that it has shown “very, very encouraging” results as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

He said this drug will be made available “almost immediately.” During the press conference, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, suggested the drug would be made available in the context of a large pragmatic clinical trial, enabling the FDA to collect data on it and make a long-term decision on its viability to treat COVID-19.

Dr. Hahn also pointed to the Gilead drug remdesivir – a drug originally developed to fight Ebola and currently undergoing clinical trials – as another possible candidate for a near-term therapeutic to help treat patients while vaccine development occurs.

Dr. Hahn noted that, while the agency is striving to provide regulatory flexibility, safety is paramount. “Let me make one thing clear: FDA’s responsibility to the American people is to ensure that products are safe and effective and that we are continuing to do that.”

He noted that if these and other experimental drugs show promise, physicians can request them under “compassionate use” provisions.

“We have criteria for that, and very speedy approval for that,” Dr. Hahn said. “The important thing about compassionate use ... this is even beyond ‘right to try.’ [We] get to collect the information about that.”

He noted that the FDA is looking at other drugs that are approved for other indications. The examinations of existing therapies are meant to be a bridge as companies work to develop new therapeutics as well as vaccines.

Dr. Hahn also highlighted a cross-agency effort on convalescent plasma, which uses the plasma from a patient who has recovered from COVID-19 infection to help patients fight the virus. “This is a possible treatment; this is not a proven treatment, “ Dr. Hahn said.

Takeda is working on an immunoglobulin treatment based on its intravenous immunoglobulin product Gammagard Liquid.

Julie Kim, president of plasma-derived therapies at Takeda, said the company should be able to go straight into testing efficacy of this approach, given the known safety profile of the treatment. She made the comments during a March 18 press briefing hosted by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Ms. Kim did caution that this would not be a mass market kind of treatment, as supply would depend on plasma donations from individuals who have fully recovered from a COVID-19 infection. She estimated that the treatment could be available to a targeted group of high-risk patients in 9-18 months.

PhRMA president and CEO Stephen Ubl said the industry is “literally working around the clock” on four key areas: development of new diagnostics, identification of potential existing treatments to make available through trials and compassionate use, development of novel therapies, and development of a vaccine.

There are more than 80 clinical trials underway on existing treatments that could have approval to treat COVID-19 in a matter of months, he said.

Mikael Dolsten, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer at Pfizer, said that the company is working with Germany-based BioNTech SE to develop an mRNA-based vaccine for COVID-19, with testing expected to begin in Germany, China, and the United States by the end of April. The company also is screening antiviral compounds that were previously in development against other coronavirus diseases.

Clement Lewin, PhD, associate vice president of R&D strategy for vaccines at Sanofi, said the company has partnered with Regeneron to launch a trial of sarilumab (Kevzara), a drug approved to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis, to help treat COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Lilly Chief Scientific Officer Daniel Skovronsky, MD, PhD, noted that his company is collaborating with AbCellera to develop therapeutics using monoclonal antibodies isolated from one of the first U.S. patients who recovered from COVID-19. He said the goal is to begin testing within the next 4 months.

Separately, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced during a March 18 press conference that it is spearheading a large international study examining a number of different treatments in what has been dubbed the SOLIDARITY trial. Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and Thailand have signed on to be a part of the trial, with more countries expected to participate.

“I continue to be inspired by the many demonstrations of solidarity from all over the world,” he said. “These and other efforts give me hope that together, we can and will prevail. This virus is presenting us with an unprecedented threat. But it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to come together as one against a common enemy, an enemy against humanity.”

Next Article: