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Investors seek drugmakers in rush to treat coronavirus

Generic antivirals may help while medics scramble to develop vaccine

Investors are eagerly seeking out companies that may be able to develop and market treatments for the new coronavirus.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The hunt for medicines and vaccines to halt the spread of coronavirus in China and other countries has sparked another search. Investors are eagerly seeking out companies that could develop and market treatments.

Stock markets in the U.S. and Asia have already seen flurries of excitement over companies that are either working on vaccines, or already produce medicines that may help patients infected with the virus. Some biotechnology companies have jumped in value, along with pharmaceuticals groups making retroviral drugs.

The immediate focus is on drugs to treat patients who contract pneumonia as a result of coronavirus infection. AbbVie, the U.S. pharma group, has given about $2 million of its antiviral drug Aluvia to China after it was included in treatment plans by the country's National Health Commission to address the epidemic.

Aluvia is a mature drug of a type used for about two decades to treat patients with HIV. It does not cure the condition, but it can help to stop the virus replicating inside the body, reduce damage to the immune system, and limit infections. There is hope that it could work in some coronavirus patients.

The drug, produced as a generic by other companies, is one of a class of so-called protease inhibitors, which work on an enzyme called protease to slow down the spread of disease. Johnson & Johnson, which makes another protease inhibitor called Prezcobix, has also donated medicines to China.

Although one study of patients in Wuhan this week noted that "no antiviral treatment for coronavirus infection has been proven to be effective," it also referred to an experimental use of the agents in Aluvia in SARS patients that found "substantial clinical benefit." China has started a fresh trial on coronavirus patients.

Protease inhibitors got an unusual endorsement last week from Wang Guangfa, director of respiratory and critical care medicine at Peking University First Hospital, who was treated with them after contracting coronavirus in Wuhan. Dr. Wang told China News Agency that it only took one day for his fever to abate after taking the drugs.

Investor enthusiasm about the prospects for another protease inhibitor called nafamostat, which has been used on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) last week led to a temporary 13% surge in shares of Fuji Pharma in Tokyo. The shares fell back again after the initial excitement.

In the longer term, a number of companies are now racing to develop a virus to combat this form of coronavirus, and perhaps others in the future. Although any virus is likely to receive expedited approval from regulators, it is likely to take at least six months for them to undergo clinical trials.

Shares in biotechs including Moderna Therapeutics and Innovio Pharmaceuticals rose last week after CEPI, the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, announced that it was investing in partnerships with the companies and the University of Queensland to produce coronavirus vaccines.

CEPI has been trying to encourage research and development in pioneering forms of vaccine technology to speed up the response to coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. The investments mean that Moderna and Innovio will compete with each other to be first to develop a Wuhan vaccine.

The process of identifying a vaccine has accelerated since the days of SARS, partly because China published the genome of the coronavirus to a public database on Jan. 10, allowing U.S. and global scientists to work rapidly. This has encouraged more researchers and companies to address the challenge.

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