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Pharmaceuticals

Search for coronavirus cure boosted by go-ahead for Fujifilm's Avigan

Existing flu and HIV treatments come with promise -- and possible side effects

Remdesivir, originally developed to treat Ebola, is undergoing clinical trials on 1,000 coronavirus patients.   © AP

TOKYO -- Medical experts are turning to existing treatments for the flu, Ebola and other illnesses to save patients from the spreading pandemic amid a global push to develop a cure for the new coronavirus.

The Chinese government announced Tuesday that the influenza drug favipiravir, developed by a Fujifilm Holdings subsidiary and sold under the name Avigan, is effective against the coronavirus, based on a clinical trial of 200 patients.

Some Japanese doctors have also been treating coronavirus patients with Avigan. Tokyo has stockpiled enough of the drug to treat 2 million patients. "We have been asked by the government to consider increasing production," Fujifilm said, though logistical hurdles are believed to stand in the way.

Avigan was approved to treat influenza in Japan in March 2014. Fujifilm signed a license agreement with China's Zhejiang Hisun Pharmaceutical in 2016, and the latter is now gearing up to mass-produce the drug. Beijing is already recommending the drug to health care providers.

Meanwhile, American biotech company Gilead Sciences is conducting a clinical trial for remdesivir, originally developed to treat Ebola, on 1,000 coronavirus patients. The drug is being tested in the U.S., Japan, China and elsewhere. Chinese results are anticipated in April, Gilead said.

Remdesivir is still not approved anywhere for any use. It could become available in Japan within a few months if the health ministry fast tracks the drug for conditional approval. But because it is not for commercial use, there is no large-scale production framework in place.

Kaletra, an HIV treatment made by U.S.-based AbbVie, has also been used to treat the coronavirus in China in conjunction with other drugs. If proven effective, production could potentially be ramped up quickly.

The Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo will start experimentally treating coronavirus patients with nafamostat, a pancreatitis treatment, by the end of the week. The drug had previously been found effective in keeping a coronavirus strain that caused the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, from infecting cells.

However, many of these treatments have serious potential side effects, and may not be appropriate for coronavirus patients with milder symptoms.

Avigan, for example, caused birth defects during animal testing and is not recommended for use by pregnant women. Liver damage and pancreatitis have been observed in Kaletra users. Side effects for remdesivir are still unclear, but could include lowered blood pressure.

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