By Julie Steenhuysen and Manas Mishra

(Reuters) – Gilead Sciences Inc said on Thursday it was assessing whether its experimental Ebola treatment could be used against the new coronavirus that has sickened hundreds of people in China and led to at least 18 deaths.

“Gilead is in active discussions with researchers and clinicians in the United States and China regarding the ongoing Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and the potential use of remdesivir as an investigational treatment,” a company spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told Reuters his agency was working with Gilead to test the company’s antiviral drug in people infected with the new coronavirus.

NIAID had previously tested remdesivir in patients with Ebola and found it to be ineffective. Fauci said there is some indication that it may work better against this new virus from China.

Coronavirus infections can lead to respiratory illnesses, some of which can be severe and deadly such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). They can also be much milder. The common cold is a strain of coronavirus.

While it is not yet known if the drug will be effective against the new strain of coronavirus that emerged from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, testing in animals had shown activity against the SARS coronavirus.

China has put millions of people on lockdown in two cities at the epicenter of the outbreak as authorities around the world work to prevent its spread globally.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Bill Berkrot)