Updated May 1, 2020
With the COVID-19 pandemic exacting a costly toll on human lives, the healthcare system, and the economy across the globe, researchers are racing to find treatments that may prove effective against the virus.
There are at least 70 potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, according to the World Health Organization, with three now in clinical trials.1 Biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., China and elsewhere are in various stages of testing experimental vaccines that could protect people from infection.
Yet bringing a vaccine to market is a lengthy endeavor with a long checklist of requirements, and rushing the testing process could pose safety risks. Public distribution of a vaccine in the U.S. could still be 12 to 18 months away, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – and many experts believe that figure is optimistic.1
Since the U.S. could still face over one year without an approved coronavirus vaccine, researchers in the meantime are studying whether existing drugs, and promising experimental drugs already in clinical trials, can be repurposed as therapies for COVID-19.2
Scientists at institutions around the world have so far identified 30 existing drugs that stop SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from replicating.3 Each drug was tested on the “live” SARS-CoV-2 virus in a lab setting, and was shown to block viral replication. These drugs have already been tested in humans, which could speed up the process of obtaining approval for public use.
Four drugs in particular, which were shown to be effective at concentrations proven to be safe in humans, have already undergone clinical tests against diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.3 These drugs are: apilimod, MLN-3897, VBY-828, and ONO 5334. They are believed to hold the most promise for short-term COVID-19 treatment.
Researchers state that they will continue exploring the full catalogue of 30 identified drugs.
Another medication that has shown modest promise in clinical trials is remdesivir, from drug maker Gilead Sciences. A federally-funded study found that hospitalized patients who took doses of remdesivir recovered more quickly than patients who did not, with recovery times shortened from 15 days to 11 days.4
“Although a 31% improvement doesn’t seem like a knockout 100%, it is a very important proof of concept,” Dr. Fauci said.4
However, another study on remdesivir conducted in China between February and March did not find statistically significant gains for patients taking the drug.5
May 1, 2020: The FDA has approved an emergency authorization for remdesivir to treat severe cases of COVID-19. The FDA defined severe disease as patients hospitalized with low blood oxygen or needing breathing support.6 Approval of the antiviral drug will be valid for the duration of the emergency declaration.