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Coronavirus Drug Shows Promise at UNC

By Megan May

UNC 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,” says 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, says 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 says 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 says. “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, but it takes much longer for a drug to get to market. Secondly, unlike like 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 effected 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 says.

Tim Sheahan is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.