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Here's what you need to know about the FDA-approved COVID-19 drug being tested at UNC

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Approved for emergency use authorization  by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month, remdesivir — an anti-viral drug developed in part by UNC researchers — could help shorten recovery time in coronavirus patients.

UNC entered into a collaboration with biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences and Vanderbilt University to study the drug in 2014, according to a fact sheet from Gilead.

“This is a game changer for the treatment of patients with COVID-19 and provides hope to many infected,” Ralph Baric said in an article from University Communications. Baric is an epidemiologist in the Gillings School of Public Health that led lab testing of the drug.

Dr. C. Buddy Creech, principal investigator at Vanderbilt's Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, called the study of the treatment “a real success story from start to finish.”

“Remdesivir showed great promise in the laboratory and in animal models and we were able to prove benefit in patients,” Creech said in an email statement. 

The drug works by targeting the enzyme the virus uses to replicate in order to halt replication in the body, Dr. Timothy Sheahan, a virologist in Baric’s lab, said. The drug is not preventive and is used in patients after they are sick. 

Sheahan said the drug could be compared to the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, which is taken to combat influenza. Additionally, in order to be most effective, remdesivir must be taken as early after infection as possible.  

Chris Ridley, Gilead Sciences’ senior director of media affairs, said in an email statement that the collaboration with UNC originally examined remdesivir's ability to combat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). 

Sheahan stressed the impact the anti-viral drug could have as the United States combats the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“That doesn’t really sound that impressive, just making someone’s disease course shorter, but we’re in this situation where we have the potential to be overwhelming our healthcare systems and we could potentially be running out of space in ICUs and hospital beds,” Sheahan said. “Shortening the duration of people’s time in the hospital would make that easier from my standpoint.”

There's a possibility that remdesivir may be combined with other anti-viral drugs or anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the virus, he said.

“I think this provides proof of principle data that it is possible to treat severe human coronavirus disease with an anti-viral drug,” Sheahan said. “I think we need to use this as a springboard to try to find things similar to remdesivir that work better or different anti-viral drugs that target different aspects of the virus, which could be paired with remdesivir to maybe make them work together.” 

Sheahan said moving forward, the success of the drug’s clinical trials presents opportunities for more treatments to be developed, and that research is continuing at UNC.

“We are now working with lots of different pharmaceutical companies and people in academia,” Sheahan said. “We’re doing a lot of drug, therapeutic and vaccine testing. Lots of other people are doing similar work so I would imagine that sometime in the near future there is just going to be an explosion of new things that could be tested in people.” 


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