Japan to race to test Favipiravir, a drug to treat Covid-19

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End of February, Leaders at Fujifilm headquarters in Tokyo rushed to coordinate with a team of 100 employees who would be tasked with an unprecedented task in 86 years: Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato had asked for help from the camera and imaging company to fight Covid-19. At that time, only around 130 people in the country were infected. But a pandemic was in sight.

With the epidemic rapidly spreading and no vaccine or treatment on the horizon, Kato hoped to find an existing drug that could be used to treat the surge of patients that was bound to arrive. One candidate was an anti-flu drug called Avigan, which had been developed decades earlier by the Fujifilm Toyama Chemical subsidiary.

In the weeks that followed, the Fujifilm team succeeded more than some governments could claim to have done in response to the spread of Covid-19: from different offices and factories, group members developed to increase production of the drug. , advised clinical researchers across Japan and helped get the drug to hospitals where government approval was given to use it as an emergency measure to treat dozens of Covid-19 patients. On March 28 – last Saturday – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that his government has started the formal process to designate Avigan as Japan’s standard treatment for Covid-19.

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A critical step in this process involves clinical trials, one of which will end in June. And while there is not yet detailed data supporting the effectiveness of Avigan as a Covid-19 treatment, there are a few reasons to be optimistic. One arrived on March 17 when Zhang Xinmin, an official with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, said that Favipiravir, the generic version of Avigan, had been shown to be effective in treating patients. Covid-19 in hospitals in Wuhan and Shenzhen.

It was, said Zhang, “very safe and clearly effective” in treating Covid-19 patients. And although the data and methodology behind Zhang’s claims were not made public, he announced some of the conclusions that doctors had drawn: in a hospital in Shenzhen, Zhang claimed that patients of Covid-19 treated with Favipiravir had tested negative for the virus after a median of four days, instead of the 11 days it took members of the study control group to test negative; in another study in Wuhan, patients taking the drug recovered from fever almost two days earlier than those who did not.

Such preliminary and unconfirmed results seem to be consistent with the way Favipiravir works. Unlike most other flu treatments, which inhibit the spread of the virus through cells by blocking the enzyme neuraminidase, Favipiravir works by inhibiting the replication of viral genes in infected cells, thereby reducing the ability of the virus to spread from one cell to another.

In practical terms, this means that patients who take the drug when their viral load is low or moderate can prevent it from making them sicker. And there is evidence that favipiravir can produce these same effects in viruses other than the flu. Prime Minister Abe seems to be among the believers, and last weekend announced that Japan “would start increasing production and continuing clinical research in cooperation with countries wishing to join us.” He also said that many countries have already expressed interest in the drug.

Although Abe didn’t mention any of these countries by name, one of them appears to be the United States. According to a recent report in Politico, Fujifilm has discussed with the FDA and the United States Department of Health and Human Services the possibility of Avigan testing in the United States, and is seeking research funding from the United States government. After Abe spoke to President Trump by phone about Avigan, the report said, the White House National Security Council began to pressure the government to accept a donation from Avigan of Japan and request the FDA to authorize its use in an emergency.

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