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Study Shows Antiviral Drug Remdesivir May Help Treat Coronavirus


We know researchers are working hard to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, but they are also working on treatments to fight the disease right now. And one experimental antiviral drug in that fight is showing promise. There's optimism because a study showed faster recovery times for those given this drug. Dr. Anthony Fauci said this about the study yesterday.


ANTHONY FAUCI: It is a very important proof of concept because what it has proven is that a drug can block this virus.

MARTIN: What does it all mean? Let's ask NPR's Joe Palca. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's the drug?

PALCA: The drug is an experimental drug called remdesivir. It's an antiviral drug. And what that means is, in this case, it gums up the molecular machinery that the virus uses to make copies of itself, so it won't spread through your body once you're infected. It's made by a company called Gilead Sciences. And people might have heard of remdesivir because it was tried as a treatment for Ebola, another viral disease, but other drugs proved more effective. Now, the trial that we're talking about now began on February 21 - the trial for COVID-19 - and it's sponsored by Dr. Fauci's institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

MARTIN: Yeah, I remember this. I remember this drug's name coming up back then. So now it's been tested. How was the study done, and what were the conclusions?

PALCA: Well, this is what's known as a randomized, placebo-controlled study, which is the gold standard as far as researchers are concerned. It means that some patients receive the drug, some patients received an inert placebo and, in every case, neither the drug - the doctors administering the drug nor the patients receiving the drug knew what they were getting. And the idea there is that they won't have any kind of bias creep into the results so that, you know, you're going to feel better once I give you this - nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

There was a total of 68 sites ultimately joined the study, 47 in the United States and 21 in Europe and Asia. And, strictly speaking, the trial isn't over. I mean, it was - it is continuing. There's still data being analyzed, but a independent committee that was monitoring the trial from outside, completely separate from the researchers involved, looked at the data from the first 400 patients or so. And, as I - as you said, the initial results showed that it was capable of shortening hospital days from - stays - from 15 to 11 days. And there was at least a hint that the drug was preventing deaths.

MARTIN: Wow. So we heard Dr. Fauci say that this second, more successful trial is a proof of concept. What happens now?

PALCA: Well, what happens now is you build on this. I mean, even this study, which is finishing up, will move rapidly to another phase where remdesivir will be combined with another drug that will be tested to see if it reduces the risk of the lung disease that's caused when, of course, the virus promulgates through the body, and people get really sick. So that's the next step, and there'll be other trials as well.

MARTIN: So this is just one of many areas of research right now trying to come up with drugs that can help with the coronavirus. Can you tell us about some of the other treatments being worked on right now?

PALCA: Right. Well, some of the others in the immediate term - there's something called convalescent plasma, which is plasma that's taken from patients who've already recovered and purified and then injected back into patients to help them - help their immune systems fight off the disease. That is moving forward. There are also some drugs that have been approved for one purpose, and they may have some efficacy against COVID-19.

So there's actually a heartburn drug that's being tried. There are drugs that are being designed by computer, so an analysis of the virus and the cells that it binds to suggesting molecules that might interrupt that process. And there are drugs that are based on antibodies that - like the ones in the convalescent plasma, but these will be purified and made into what's called monoclonal antibodies, which can be used as therapies.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Joe Palca. We appreciate this, Joe. Thank you.

PALCA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.