Early Drug Trials Show Promise of Coronavirus Recovery

Japan’s Fujifilm Holdings has assembled a team of more than 100 to deal with rising global interest in its anti-flu drug Avigan as clinical trials in China suggest it may be an effective treatment for coronavirus.

The spotlight on Avigan (generic name favipiravir) comes as governments and pharmaceutical companies race to find a treatment for the virus, which has infected nearly 200,000 people worldwide. 

Shares in the company rose 15 percent on Wednesday after Chinese authorities reported faster recovery times for those given favipiravir during clinical trials in Wuhan and Shenzhen. 

Experts say much is still unknown about COVID-19, and doctors may find Avigan is more effective if used in combination with other drugs.

Favipiravir is the main ingredient in Avigan, and the drug’s key feature is its ability to stop the genes of the virus from replicating within infected cells. 

“We want to do everything we can if Avigan is going to contribute to ending this outbreak as fast as possible,” said Junji Okada, president of Fujifilm Toyama Chemical, the unit that produces Avigan. (Editor’s note: The interview was conducted before the the publication of trial results in China, which Fujifilm has declined to comment on.) 

Japanese regulators approved Avigan in 2014, but it can only be manufactured and distributed at the request of the government for use in the outbreak of a new influenza virus.

The government currently holds a stockpile of the medicine for approximately 2 million people, but Okada said the company has made emergency preparations so that it could boost production if requested. 

In 2016, Japan supplied the drug as an emergency aid in response to the Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, and researchers have hopes that it can work for a range of other diseases, including the West Nile and Marburg viruses. 

Doctors, however, say that Avigan needs to be used with great care and under tight controls because of a serious side effect that could cause fetal abnormalities if a pregnant woman took the drug. Its potential for causing birth defects is one reason Avigan is not used to treat regular flu.

For a clinical trial underway in Japan, female patients will not be given Avigan if they are pregnant. The trial aims to enroll 86 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and will target only those showing mild or no symptoms, to research whether the drug can slow down the virus.

Experts say much is still unknown about COVID-19, and doctors may find Avigan is more effective if used in combination with other drugs.

“Avigan has been given as an emergency measure to patients in critical conditions at some hospitals,” says Dr. Yohei Doi, head of the clinical trial at Fujita Health University. “We need to collect information on how many patients have been given Avigan and what kind of effect was observed by doctors who are making these emergency decisions on the ground.”

Other drugs being tested against the coronavirus include Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir and AbbVie’s anti-HIV drug Kaletra.

By Kana Inagaki

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