Update: for clinical trial results as of March 18 on some of these, see here).
Let’s take inventory on the therapies that are being developed for the coronavirus epidemic. Here is a very thorough list of at Biocentury, and I should note that (like Stat and several other organizations) they’re making all their Covid-19 content free to all readers during this crisis. I’d like to zoom in today on the potential small-molecule therapies, since some of these have the most immediate prospects for use in the real world.
The ones at the front of the line are repurposed drugs that are already approved for human use, for a lot of obvious reasons. The Biocentury list doesn’t cover these, but here’s an article at Nature Biotechnology that goes into detail. Clinical trials are a huge time sink – they sort of have to be, in most cases, if they’re going to be any good – and if you’ve already done all that stuff it’s a huge leg up, even if the drug itself is not exactly a perfect fit for the disease. So what do we have? The compound that is most advanced is probably remdesivir from Gilead, at right. This has been in development for a few years as an RNA virus therapy – it was originally developed for Ebola, and has been tried out against a whole list of single-strand RNA viruses. That includes the related coronaviruses SARS and MERS, so Covid-19 was an obvious fit.
The compound is a prodrug – that phosphoramide gets cleaved off completely, leaving the active 5-OH compound GS-44-1524. It mechanism of action is to get incorporated into viral RNA, since it’s taken up by RNA polymerase and it largely seems to evade proofreading. This causes RNA termination trouble later on, since that alpha-nitrile C-nucleoside is not exactly what the virus is expecting in its genome at that point, and thus viral replication is inhibited.
There are five clinical trials underway (here’s an overview at Biocentury). The NIH has an adaptive-design Phase II trial that has already started in Nebraska, with doses to be changed according to Bayesian readouts along the way. There are two Phase III trials underway at China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Hubei, double-blinded and placebo-controlled (since placebo is, as far as drug therapy goes, the current standard of care). And Gilead themselves are starting two open-label trials, one with no control arm and one with an (unblinded) standard-of-care comparison arm. Those might read out first, depending on when they get off the ground, but will be only rough readouts due to the fast-and-loose trial design. The two Hubei trials and the NIH one will add some rigor to the process, but I’m not sure when they’re going to report. My personal opinion is that I like the chances of this drug more than anything else on this list, but it’s still unlikely to be a game-changer.
There’s an RNA polymerase inhibitor (favipiravir) from Toyama, at right, that’s in a trial in China. It’s a thought – a broad-spectrum agent of this sort would be the sort of thing to try. But unfortunately, from what I can see, it has already turned up as ineffective in in vitro tests. The human trial that’s underway is honestly the sort of thing that would only happen under circumstances like the present: a developing epidemic with a new pathogen and no real standard of care. I hold out little hope for this one, but given that there’s nothing else at present, it probably should be tried. As you’ll see, this is far from the only situation like this.
One of the screens of known drugs in China that also flagged remdesivir noted that the old antimalarial drug chloroquine seemed to be effective in vitro. It had been reported some years back as a possible antiviral, working through more than one mechanism, probably both at viral entry and intracellularly thereafter. That part shouldn’t be surprising – chloroquine’s actual mode(s) of action against malaria parasites are still not completely worked out, either, and some of what people thought they knew about it has turned out to be wrong. There are several trials underway with it at Chinese facilities, some in combination with other agents like remdesivir. Chloroquine has of course been taken for many decades as an antimalarial, but it has a number of liabilities, including seizures, hearing damage, retinopathy and sudden effects on blood glucose. So it’s going to be important to establish just how effective it is and what doses will be needed. Just as with vaccine candidates, it’s possible to do more harm with a rushed treatment than the disease is doing itself
There are several other known antiviral drugs are being tried in China, but I don’t have too much hope for those, either. The neuraminidase inhibitors such as oseltamivir (better known as Tamiflu) were tried against SARS and were ineffective; there is no reason to expect anything versus Covid-19 although these drugs are a component of some drug cocktail trials. The HIV protease therapies such as darunavir and the combination therapy Kaletra are in trials, but that’s also a rather desperate long shot, since there’s no particular reason to think that they will have any such protease inhibition against what this new virus has to offer (and indeed, such agents weren’t much help against SARS in the end, either). The classic interferon/ribavirin combination seems to have had some activity against SARS and MERS, and is in two trials from what I can see. That’s not an awful idea by any means, but it’s not a great one, either: if your viral disease has interferon/ribavirin as a front line therapy, it generally means that there’s nothing really good available. No, unless we get really lucky none of these ideas are going to slow the disease down much.
There are a few other repurposed-protease-inhibitors ideas out there, such as this one. (Edit: I had seen this paper but couldn’t track it down, so thanks to those who sent it along). This paper suggests that the TMPRSS2 protease is important for viral entry on the human-cell-side of the process, a pathway that has been noted for other coronaviruses. And it points out that there is a an approved inhibitor (in Japan) for this enzyme (camostat), so that would definitely seem to be worth a trial, probably in combination with remdesivir.
That’s about it for the existing small molecules, from what I can see. What about new ones? Don’t hold your breath, is all I can say. A drug discovery program from scratch against a new pathogen is, as many readers here well know, not a trivial exercise. As this Bloomberg article details, many such efforts in the past (small molecules and vaccines alike) have come to grief because by the time they had anything to deliver the epidemic itself had passed. Indeed, Gilead’s remdesivir had already been dropped as a potential Ebola therapy.
You will either need to have a target in mind up front or go phenotypic. For the former, what you’d see are better characterizations of the viral protease and more extensive screens against it. Two other big target areas are viral entry (which involves the “spike” proteins on the virus surface and the ACE2 protein on human cells) and viral replication. To the former, it’s worth quickly noting that ACE2 is so much unlike the more familiar ACE protein that none of the cardiovascular ACE inhibitors do anything to it at all. And targeting the latter mechanisms is how remdesivir was developed as a possible Ebola agent, but as you can see, that took time, too. Phenotypic screens are perfectly reasonable against viral pathogens as well, but you’ll need to put time and effort into that assay up front, just as with any phenotypic effort, because as anyone who does that sort of work will tell you, a bad phenotypic screen is a complete waste of everyone’s time.
One of the key steps for either route is identifying an animal model. While animal models of infectious disease can be extremely well translated to human therapy, that doesn’t happen by accident: you need to choose the right animal. Viruses in general (and coronaviruses are no exception) vary widely in their effects in different species, and not just across the gaps of bird/reptile/human and the like. No, you’ll run into things where even the usual set of small mammals are acting differently from each other, with some of them not even getting sick at all. This current virus may well have gone through a couple of other mammalian species before landing on us, but you’ll note that dogs (to pick one) don’t seem to have any problem with it.
All this means that any new-target new-chemical-matter effort against Covid-19 (or any new pathogen) is going to take years, and there is just no way around that. Update: see here for just such an effort to start finding fragment hits for the viral protease. This puts small molecules in a very bimodal distribution: you have the existing drugs that might be repurposed, and are presumably available right now. Nothing else is! At the other end, for completely new therapies you have the usual prospects of drug discovery: years from now, lots of money, low success rate, good luck to all of us. The gap between these two could in theory be filled by vaccines and antibody therapies (if everything goes really, really well) but those are very much their own area and will be dealt with in a separate post.
Either way, the odds are that we (and I mean “we as a species” here) are going to be fighting this epidemic without any particularly amazing pharmacological weapons. Eventually we’ll have some, but I would advise people, pundits, and politicians not to get all excited about the prospects for some new therapies to come riding up over the hill to help us out. The odds of that happening in time to do anything about the current outbreak are very small. We will be going for months, years, with the therapeutic options we have right now. Look around you: what we have today is what we have to work with.