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Infectious disease


Drug firms mobilize to combat novel coronavirus outbreak

Development of diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments is underway

by Lisa M. Jarvis
January 30, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 5


A scene from the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak in China.
Medical staff help a patient outside a hospital in Wuhan.

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The World Health Organization has declared the fast-moving coronavirus outbreak in China a “public health emergency of international concern,” a measure that can spur coordinated global efforts to combat it. With infections steadily rising, major drug companies are mobilizing to develop diagnostics, vaccines, and possible treatments for the virus, 2019-nCoV.

According to WHO, as of Jan. 30 more than 7,800 people worldwide are confirmed to have been infected by the virus, and another 12,000-plus cases are suspected. Almost all of the cases are in China, where 170 people have died.

Although smaller biotech firms were among the first to publicly respond to the outbreak, big pharma firms say they have been quietly working on tests and treatments for several weeks. Roche has sent the first commercial diagnostic to China, and Johnson & Johnson says it is using the same technologies deployed for the rapid development of an Ebola vaccine to develop a 2019-nCoV vaccine.

Researchers from the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences captured a high-resolution crystal structure of the 3C-like protease of the virus, which they used to virtually screen for compounds that could block the enzyme. The team tested approved drugs, natural products, and traditional Chinese medicines, identifying 30 potential inhibitors. The candidates include five protease inhibitors and a dozen approved HIV therapies.

Chinese health authorities are exploring using those drugs, as well as antivirals that have shown efficacy against the SARS virus. At the request of Chinese agencies, AbbVie has donated a supply of its HIV medication Aluvia, a pill that combines the protease inhibitors lopinavir and ritonavir. Likewise, J&J has contributed 350 boxes of its HIV drug Prezcobix, which contains darunavir and cobicistat, to researchers and health agencies studying potential treatments. J&J says it will collaborate on screening other antivirals for efficacy against 2019-nCoV.

Gilead Sciences, meanwhile, is in discussions with US and Chinese researchers and clinicians regarding use of its antiviral remdesivir, which in animal models has shown activity against the related SARS and MERS viruses. Gilead developed remdesivir during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa but hasn’t received regulatory approval for it.


On Feb. 11, 2020, the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses officially named the novel coronavirus "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2). The temporary name for the virus was 2019-nCoV.



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