Coronavirus drug shows promise at Carolina

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health researchers are testing a new broad-spectrum antiviral drug that could potentially be a relief to the global coronavirus pandemic.

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UNC-Chapel Hill researchers are doing their part in the fight against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, heads a lab testing a broad-spectrum antiviral drug called remdesivir.

As of now, there is no FDA approved drug on the market to prevent any human coronavirus or treat associated diseases like COVID-19. “So, basically we have no weapons in our arsenal,” said Tim Sheahan, a virologist in Baric’s lab.

Six years ago, the lab partnered with the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc. Their goal was testing the company’s antiviral drugs to curb emerging viral diseases often overlooked by big pharmaceutical companies, said Sheahan.

Coronaviruses were of particular interest. Fast forward to today, and the intravenous drug remdesivir could potentially be a relief to this global pandemic. Just like broad-spectrum antibiotics — which can cure a wide range of bacterial infections — a broad-spectrum antiviral like remdesivir can work against genetically distinct viruses.

In animal and cell models of SAR and MERS coronavirus diseases, researchers have prevented infection and also diminished associated diseases during an ongoing infection. Sheahan said the drug has worked against every coronavirus they’ve tested so far, including the one that causes COVID-19.

As a researcher, Sheahan remains realistic about expectations.

“Though we’re optimistic that it will work, it’s possible that it won’t work,” he said. “There’s potential for success [but also] for failure.”

Not long ago, remdesivir was a hopeful solution to the 2018 Ebola outbreak. The drug was successful against the virus in the lab, but not in patients. It’s important to note, however, that Ebola is not a coronavirus.

Right now, several clinical trials are testing the drug’s efficacy and results are expected this April. If successful, Sheahan thinks it could first be given to people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 cases.

Although results thus far are promising, Sheahan points out a few factors the public should keep in mind. First, although clinical results are expected this spring, it takes much longer for a drug to get to market. Secondly, unlike the flu shot, remdesivir is delivered through an IV drip. In addition, the demand for the drug is — and will continue to be — much larger than the supply.

If successful, though, remdesivir could not only save lives of those affected with this coronavirus but also ones we have yet to face.

“Through the development of broad-spectrum drugs and vaccines, that will make a future emerging coronavirus much, much faster than what we’re dealing with today,” Sheahan said.

Read more stories on Carolina’s research at the Endeavors website