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What is remdesivir, and could it help solve the coronavirus pandemic?

what is remdesivir coronavirus
Photo via BaptisteGrandGrand/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)
  • The investigational antiviral drug was invented after a decade of research
  • It’s previously been used to help address Ebola and SARS
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci is cautiously optimistic but says it’s not a “total answer”

An antiviral drug called remdesivir is showing promise that it helps COVID-19 patients recover faster, according to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  But what is remdesivir?

“It’s the first step in what we project will be better and better drugs coming along,” NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with Today. “So it’s good news, but I was very serious when I said this is not the total answer, by any means, but a very important first step.” 

Preliminary results released on April 29 from the Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial executed by NIAID showed that 31% of those tested saw a faster recovery time than those who got a placebo instead. The study, which began on Feb. 21, comprised of 1,063 hospitalized COVID-10 patients with affected lungs. 

Specifically, the trial found that median time to recovery was 11 days for patients treated with remdesivir, as opposed to a median time of 15 days for patients given a placebo. Results also indicated that the drug improved chances of survival, with the mortality rate for treated patients at 8% and 11.6% for those not treated. 

Remdesivir is an “investigational drug” produced by a biotech firm called Gilead Sciences. A fact sheet provided by the firm said research that led to the drug started in 2009. 

“Over that time, our research scientists have explored the compound for multiple potential uses to help address urgent and unmet medical needs around the world, including Ebola, SARS, Marburg, MERS, and most recently COVID-19,” the fact sheet says. 

John Scott, chair of the department of pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a USA Today interview that the drug works by helping prevent the virus from replicating. 

Fauci said he expects the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the immediate use of remdesivir “reasonably soon.” 

Gilead has accelerated manufacturing timelines to increase the available supply of remdesivir as rapidly as possible, according to the fact sheet. “We are doing this before knowing whether remdesivir will be determined to be safe and effective to treat patients with COVID-19,” it said. 

Thinking long term, Fauci said he foresees future effective drugs coming out that will work alongside and in combination with remdesivir. He also said he believes a COVID-19 vaccine could be available as early as January 2021. When the pandemic first began in March, Fauci said a vaccine was still at least 12-18 months away.

“We want to go quickly, but we want to make sure it’s safe, and it’s effective,” he said. “I think that is doable if things fall in the right place.” 

On June 29, Gilead announced the drug would cost $520 for a single vial or $3,120 per hospital treatment. Experts told the New York Times that the price was “not exorbitant.”

On July 10, Gileads’ data showed that 74% of patients who received remdesivir had recovered by the 14th day. For those who hadn’t received it, only 59% had recovered by then. The death rates for those taking the drug also showed improvements over those who had not.

Sources: NBC News, Gilead, USA Today, National Institute of Health


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