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Business News/ News / World/  Coronavirus drugs, vaccine are many months away, health experts say
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Coronavirus drugs, vaccine are many months away, health experts say

Public- and private-sector medical officials cautioned that further study is needed to assess possible treatments pushed by White House

A study in China testing hydroxychloroquine in 30 patients with mild forms of the disease didn’t confirm a benefit (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
A study in China testing hydroxychloroquine in 30 patients with mild forms of the disease didn’t confirm a benefit (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

A federal health official on Tuesday sought to tamp down mounting excitement in some quarters over the potential for antimalarial drugs to treat the new coronavirus, though a Trump administration adviser voiced more optimism.

Doctors, patients and researchers have been looking for treatments that can tackle the virus as it spreads across the world. World-wide cases of Covid-19, the pneumonialike disease caused by the virus, surpassed 400,000 on Tuesday and more than 18,500 people have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Health Forum, held remotely by videoconference on Tuesday, Amy Abernethy, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said antimalarial drugs like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine must be tested to determine whether they can fight off the deadly respiratory illness.

“We need to ask in a judicious way, what are the data that support this particular intervention, and also support this invention over other potential interventions?" Dr. Abernethy said.

Public-health officials around the world have sounded warnings and urged caution in recent days about administering antimalarial drugs in efforts to fight the coronavirus, especially after President Trump touted the drugs.

A treatment for malaria might be effective in combating the coronavirus if used early on, Jeff Colyer, chairman of the national advisory committee on rural health and human services, said at the forum Tuesday. Before being appointed to the panel by the Trump administration last month, Dr. Colyer, who is also a surgeon, served as the Republican governor of Kansas from 2018 to 2019.

Dr. Colyer mentioned using hydroxychloroquine, along with Zithromax Z-Pak, Pfizer Inc.’s brand name drug for the antibiotic azithromycin.

“We are not suggesting that this is a magic bullet, but the data that we have seen so far, it perhaps could be effective," he told the audience.

A study in China testing hydroxychloroquine in 30 patients with mild forms of the disease didn’t confirm a benefit, and researchers recommended further investigation.

Study subjects given more conventional treatment cleared the virus at a rate of 93%, compared with 87% in patients who received the antimalarial drug along with the conventional treatment, according to an abstract published recently in a Chinese medical journal. CT scans, however, showed the disease progressed in five patients who received the drug, compared with seven patients given the conventional treatment alone, and all patients showed improvement in follow-up exams.

Researchers have been scrambling to test a variety of potential coronavirus treatments to see whether they could make a difference. Among them are drugs already approved and on sale for other uses, because they could be quickly dispatched if proved to work.

One of the latest efforts to explore repurposing an off-the-shelf therapy involves a rheumatoid-arthritis drug from Roche Holding AG. The drugmaker plans to begin testing the drug next month in patients with severe pneumonia caused by the coronavirus, said Alexander Hardy, chief executive of Roche’s Genentech business.

“What we’re really missing is a clear level of evidence to really inform what the correct role of Actemra is in treating the disease in its most serious stage," he said at the conference.

The study will take months, Mr. Hardy indicated. Meantime, Roche is providing Actemra to doctors on the front lines of treating coronavirus patients, and has sent 10,000 vials to the U.S. government’s strategic stockpile for further use, he added.

Trevor Mundel, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said by the end of this year or early next year studies might point to a vaccine that is safe and shows signs of preventing infections, but more testing will be needed before it could be used broadly. If everything works out, a vaccine could be ready for use by the end of 2021, he said.

“We certainly will need a much larger safety database and efficacy database to really move a vaccine forward," Mr. Mundel said, noting some vaccines developed for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, didn’t work and made things worse.

The coronavirus pandemic dominated discussion at the health forum. Howard Zucker, New York state’s health commissioner, said fending off the virus is triggering urgent, creative efforts to address the many challenges.

New York is looking into tactics such as splitting up one ventilator for use by two patients, he said. “I think that what we are doing here in New York is preparing for challenges we have never seen before," Dr. Zucker said. “We are not in a normal situation now."

Dr. Zucker stressed the importance of continued social distancing to delay transmission and lessen the strain on the health-care system. He said there likely won’t be stricter enforcement beyond what the state is doing already, despite some people not adhering to its recommendations.

Dr. Zucker’s comments came the same day Mr. Trump signaled he wants the U.S. largely reopened in just over two weeks, a much shorter timeline than what many public-health experts have recommended. In Congress, lawmakers moved closer Tuesday toward a potential agreement on a roughly $2 trillion relief package to address the crisis.

Meantime, Dr. Zucker pleaded for more federal support for state-level virus-fighting efforts.

“Many of the resources that are needed need to come from the federal government. We are doing what we can," he said.

—Allison Prang and Jared S. Hopkins contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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Updated: 25 Mar 2020, 05:15 PM IST
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