Study on Antiviral Drug Could Lead to Better Covid Treatments

Texas researchers studying the inner workings of remdesivir say their findings could be used to develop similar but more powerful drugs to help fight the coronavirus.

A bottle containing the drug remdesivir is held by a health worker in Debrecen, Hungary, last October. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP, File)

(CN) — New science on how exactly the widely used antiviral drug remdesivir fights Covid-19 could lead to more powerful and easier-to-administer drugs of the same type, researchers said in a study published Thursday.

Remdesivir is still the only antiviral drug approved in the U.S. to treat Covid-19, though there are multiple other drugs of a different variety called monoclonal antibodies being used to treat patients with mild cases.

The antiviral drug, which was among those given to former President Donald Trump for his bout with the disease, works by actually blocking the virus from reproducing, unlike the antibody treatments that fight the virus by copying the body’s natural immune system defenses.

These days, the drug is being given to half of all Covid-19 patients in U.S. hospitals, according to a report from Kaiser Health News, despite some earlier concerns about its effectiveness.

In Thursday’s study published in the journal Molecular Cell, researchers from the University of Texas took a deep dive into the inner mechanisms of how exactly remdesivir works, looking at a level of detail that even the drug’s manufacturer had yet to explore.

The study, which one researcher said was prompted by initial work from UT graduate student Tyler Dangerfield, led to a sort of road map for how exactly the drug stops the coronavirus from duplicating.

“What we’re showing is exactly the chemical mechanism by which it works, which can help us to design even better drugs that might be more effective,” Kenneth Johnson, a co-author on the study, said in an interview. “Maybe a shorter treatment, or less side effects on longer treatments.”

Johnson said shortening the length of the treatment could be particularly helpful because after the typical current treatment window of about five days, patients run a greater risk of seeing toxic side effects from the drug.

More importantly, he said, these kinds of drugs will still be needed for a while, as the coronavirus is unlikely to be totally eradicated even after most of the population has been vaccinated.

And then there’s the next outbreak.

“The idea is that at the very least, in the long run, we need to have drugs right on the shelf that will work against the future coronavirus,” he said.

In the meantime, health experts and drug companies are keeping a close eye on the coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S. and other countries.

Though the research so far suggests that vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer are effective against the new coronavirus variants, health experts remain concerned about the potential for further mutations of the virus to outpace the nation’s vaccine rollout.

Johnson said having a supply of more powerful antiviral drugs on standby could be an important safeguard in the event that any variants do become resistant to vaccines.

For the study, remdesivir manufacturer Gilead supplied samples of the drug to the Texas research team in exchange for the results of the study before it was published. The company did not immediately respond when asked about whether it had plans yet to actually use the findings to develop any new drugs, but Johnson said he expects the company and others like it to look at the study closely.

“They’re aware of the data, and I think they’re very excited about the results,” he said.

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