COVID-19 drug tested at UNC-CH shows promise

Drug tested at UNC-Chapel Hill shows success at shortening recovery times for coronavirus patients. 

April 30, 2020 

Drug's positive results give optimism at federal level

Research on a coronavirus drug out of UNC-Chapel Hill has garnered attention at the federal level. The drug, an antiviral called remdesivir, has been shown to speed up the recovery time for patients with COVID-19 by suppressing the virus’ ability to reproduce.

News of the drug’s positive results in human clinical trials caused a surge of optimism in the stock market and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said the results show “quite good news.”

UNC lab with 30 years of experience in coronavirus research assists drug company

Gilead Sciences, the company that makes the drug, originally developed it to fight Ebola, without much success. But as the pandemic took hold, the company pivoted to targeting the coronavirus, which is similar to Ebola in that both viruses use enzymes that replicate their RNA genomes. The drug target those enzymes, interrupting the virus' ability to replicate.

The Baric Lab, led by Dr. Ralph Baric at UNC-CH, has studied coronavirus strains for more than 30 years and partnered with Gilead to test the drug. The study involved 1,063 hospitalized coronavirus patients around the world, 20 of which were located at Duke University Hospital. The patients received either remdesivir or a placebo for 10 days.

Preliminary results published Wednesday show that patients who received the drug recovered on average 4 days earlier than the patients who recieved a placebo. The results also show a small but not statistically significant decrease in patient mortality.

“This is a game changer for the treatment of patients with COVID-19,” Baric said in a statement. “Remdesivir provides an effective treatment strategy for the many infected individuals around the globe.”

Shortening recovery times is important for relieving the burden on hospitals, said Timothy Sheahan, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School and a researcher in the Baric Lab. “We have been working with Gilead for more than seven years to create broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that could be effective against multiple coronavirus strains and, hopefully, give us tools in the face of a pandemic. We were seeking ‘one drug for many bugs,’” he said in a statement.

Designing, testing and scaling up production of a coronavirus vaccine could take a year to 18-months. In the meantime, drug companies and researchers are scrambling to find remedies that suppress the coronavirus, which has killed 200,000 people globally and 60,000 in the United States. Remdesivir is the first drug to show any success against coronavirus in a gold-standard, randomized controlled study.