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The first coronavirus drug candidate is set for testing in China

February 3, 2020, 11:18 PM UTC

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency last week. There have now been more deaths in China from this iteration of the virus (more than 350 to date, according to Chinese health officials) than there were from the SARS outbreak of 2003—a respiratory disease resembling the flu and pneumonia which also has similarities to the Wuhan coronavirus strain, dubbed 2019-nCoV.

To date, global health officials—including the WHO itself—have emphasized that panic isn’t an ideal response to such an outbreak as it could make matters even worse, especially in countries with relatively robust health systems like the U.S.

But in China and other nations with high population densities, which may exacerbate the coronavirus infections rate, the development of a drug could prove critical.

So where do we stand on that front?

U.S.-based biotech Gilead, known for its HIV and hepatitis C treatments, has struck a partnership with Beijing’s China-Japan Friendship Hospital to test out an antiviral drug called remdesivir in actual humans in Wuhan, the apparent origin site of the coronavirus outbreak. (Gilead shares rose 5% in Monday trading.)

Atypical for drug production, this is an example of how private companies and government organizations can work together in the event of a crisis to speed things up. In emergency situations, drug companies are able to perform safety trials to prove that treatments won’t actively harm people without the usual red tape that can make new therapies take years to get to market.

It appears that Chinese authorities believe the situation is serious enough in the country to warrant a hurry-up approach.

Beside Gilead, there are a number of biopharmaceutical companies reaching into this space. Those span the gamut from Johnson & Johnson, to Inovia Pharmaceuticals, to Moderna Therapeutics, to a coalition of public institutes led by researchers from Baylor’s College of Medicine.

The latter has a SARS vaccine, according to Baylor’s Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, that may be able to protect against this new coronavirus strain given the striking genomic similarities with the virus that led to SARS.

Still, the biggest issue will be deploying these treatments on the ground as quickly as possible—and cooperation between corporations and governments across the globe in order to make it happen.

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