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Orally-administered antiviral drug tested at UNC shows promise in treating COVID-19

Durham faith-based advocacy group La Semilla holds refugee vaccination event
A volunteer fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at La Semilla's vaccination event, Feb. 20, 2021.

In the wake of vaccine development for the treatment of COVID-19, faculty and students from the Gillings School of Global Public Health and UNC School of Medicine have collaborated on testing an antiviral drug for the ability to treat COVID-19.

Scientists have tested this drug, EIDD-2801, on mice, and have found early success in treating and stopping the spread of COVID-19. EIDD-2801, unlike other treatments, is orally administered. 

“Remdesivir and monoclonal antibodies can work really well at blocking virus replication," Lisa Gralinski, assistant professor of epidemiology, said. "But you have to use an IV to get it through, so you need to be in a hospital or an infusion center.” 

Gralinski said EIDD-2801 is administered in pill form and is taken early in the diagnosis.

Angela Wahl, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases, said EIDD-2801 was first invented by researchers at Emory University, who had initially – and successfully — tested it against influenza, SARS, MERS and other coronaviruses.

Wahl said EIDD-2801 works by creating an abundance of errors in the virus genome, which prevents the virus from replicating in a host. 

Her work on the drug has mainly been focused on organizing data, participating in the experimental design and other technical work, Wahl said. 

Gralinski said drugs like EIDD-2801 should still be effective against new COVID-19 variants observed in South Africa and Britain because it targets the virus’ ability to replicate, unlike current vaccines that are targeting the virus’ spike protein and allowing human cells to develop immunity.

In February 2020 — before UNC switched to all remote learning due to the pandemic — J. Victor Garcia-Martinez, a professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division, contacted Gralinski to use a mouse model in studying the newly emerged SARS COV-2. 

Through the Garcia Lab, researchers have "humanized" a mouse model with human lung tissue in order to study the drug’s effects.

Gralinski said the mice they have used are immunodeficient and have non-functional lungs used to test EIDD-2801.

Claire Johnson, a graduate research assistant in the department of microbiology and immunology and co-author of the article in "Nature" about EIDD-2801, said the experiments were a collaborative effort between members of the Garcia and Baric laboratories

“EIDD-2801 is currently in clinical trials and, based on our positive results, we are hopeful that the human trials will be successful as well,” Johnson said. “Although multiple vaccines have now been approved, an effective treatment option is also critically important to getting this pandemic under control.”

Researchers at UNC have not observed any adverse effects in the mice but are continuing to conduct trials, Gralinski said.

"Depending on the results of the Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials, we will hopefully get approved by the FDA," Gralinski said.

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