By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) – An experimental Gilead Sciences antiviral drug prevented disease and reduced the severity of symptoms in monkeys infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), an infection closely related to the fast-spreading coronavirus that originated in China, a study published on Thursday found.
The results, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, raise hope that the drug, remdesivir, currently in clinical trials in China, might be effective against the new virus that has infected some 60,000 people globally, and killed more than 1,300, mostly in China.
However, remdesivir had previously been shown to be protective in monkeys infected with the Ebola virus, but that did not translate to humans.
“It wasn’t successful in Ebola, but there is some indication that it might be successful in the coronaviruses,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said in a recent interview.
NIAID scientists tested remdesivir in monkeys 24 hours prior to infection with MERS and in other monkeys 12 hours after infection – the time frame in monkeys when the virus is most active. They were compared with untreated monkeys in a control group. After six days, all of the untreated animals got sick.
In the monkeys treated prior to infection, the drug appeared to prevent disease. Animals in this group showed no sign of infection, had significantly lower levels of virus in their lungs and no lung damage. Those treated after infection also fared better than the control group. They had less severe disease, their lungs had lower levels of virus and they had less severe lung damage, researchers found.
Many drugs that succeed in monkeys fail in humans. Nevertheless, the researchers said their findings bolster hopes for the ongoing studies in China and for compassionate use of the drug in severely ill patients.
The MERS study was supported in part by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A state-run Chinese research institute applied last week fora patent to use Gilead’s experimental drug against the new coronavirus.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, a former World Health Organization virologist who co-chaired a research forum in Geneva this week, said Chinese researchers will soon start testing the drug on patients, but it could be a few weeks before they know whether it is having any effect.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Bill Berkrot)