Animal studies give hope to a future where a pill could prevent COVID-19 infection

The experimental drug EIDD-2801 is being studied for its impact on coronavirus.

April 10, 2020, 3:08 PM

A team of scientists has shown promising early results in animal studies against coronavirus strains using an antiviral drug. The hope is that the medication could eventually be taken as a pill rather than an injection to protect against becoming sick with COVID-19.

There is currently no approved treatment for the novel coronavirus, which was discovered late in 2019.

This experimental drug, known as EIDD-2801, was initially developed for influenza and two other strains of coronavirus. Being tested to treat COVID-19 and slow down the spread, this drug might be used to prevent someone from getting COVID-19 in the first place, in addition to treating symptoms among people who already have the virus.

“We wanted something that could be used in public health emergencies, i.e., something that could be self-administered and not require significant medical infrastructure to take care of the patients, which would be particularly useful in these kinds of circumstances,” said Dr. George Painter, one of the scientists and co-founders of Drug Innovations at Emory (DRIVE), a non-profit biotechnology company associated with Emory University based out of Atlanta.

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At this time, the drug has only been studied in animals, but researchers say human trials are expected to start mid-April in the United Kingdom.

Painter's team at DRIVE has collaborated with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University Medical Center during preliminary studies using mouse models. Ridgeback Therapeutics, LP, the company behind the possible treatment for Ebola virus, has collaborated with DRIVE to help move EIDD-2801 to human testing.

In a laboratory, the drug reduced the amount of virus inside lung tissue, and seemed to improve lung function in mice. But like all drugs that are being studied for COVID-19, only time will tell if this one works when it's finally tested in humans.

The oral antiviral agent works similarly to the experimental drug remdesivir, which is delivered as an intravenous formulation and is currently being tested as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Both work in a similar way, blocking an enzyme that allows production of the virus' genetic material found in all coronavirus strains, including COVID-19.

PHOTO: A soldier walks back to a hut after testing a NHS (National Health Service) worker for Covid-19 at a drive-through testing centre, in Manchester, northern England, April 9, 2020.
A soldier walks back to a hut after testing a NHS (National Health Service) worker for Covid-19 at a drive-through testing centre, in Manchester, northern England, April 9, 2020.
Jon Super/AP

“It is not easy to make drugs against these viruses," said Dr. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of Microbiology and Virology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and host of the popular podcast, This Week in Virology. "It is hard to inhibit the enzyme that makes the genetic material, it is really promising that we have these drugs like remdesivir, in the same class, that have these properties. I think it is good to have two of those kinds of drugs moving forward.”

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One of the properties of EIDD-2801 that makes it so unique, is that it can treat strains of the virus that develop resistance against remdesivir. Through a process Painter called “viral decay acceleration,” the virus is forced to a point where it can no longer replicate and is no longer harmful.

In the race to find a treatment for COVID-19, EIDD-2801 isn't at the front of the pack - but it's a promising drug that is generating excitement because of its potential to prevent the disease rather than treat it.

According to Painter, "everyone is going full speed" to get the drug into human trials to test for safety and then later to test if it actually works.

Lily Nedda Dastmalchi D.O., M.A., is an Internal Medicine resident at The George Washington University Hospital and is a contributor to the ABC News' Medical Unit.

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