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Infectious disease

Can old drugs take down a new coronavirus?

Several approved and well-studied small molecules could be repurposed as treatments for COVID-19

by Lisa M. Jarvis
March 12, 2020


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

When any new virus emerges, drug and vaccine developers spring into action, searching for products to stop it in its tracks. Drug discovery campaigns launch, vaccine development efforts ramp up, and everyone mobilizes to get it all into the clinic as quickly as possible.

The current pandemic, driven by a coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, is no different. Already, a Phase I study of an mRNA-based vaccine developed by Moderna has begun, and major pharma companies and small biotechs are working on other types of vaccines. But even if they work, the most optimistic timelines put a vaccine a year to 18 months away.

The more immediate approach to an outbreak is to scour the medicine cabinet for existing molecules that could be repurposed against a new virus. The most advanced potential treatment is Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, an antiviral discovered during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The compound is already being tested in four, Phase III trials—two in China and two in the US—against the respiratory disease COVID-19. Gilead expects the first dataset from those studies to come out in April.

A new paper from CAS explored remdesivir and other possible options the cabinet might contain (ACS Cent. Sci. 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.0c00272). CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, looked at the landscape of patent and journal articles covering small molecules, antibodies, and other therapeutic classes to identify therapies with potential activity against COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2, belongs to the same family as two coronaviruses responsible for earlier outbreaks, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Because all three feature structurally similar proteins that allow entry into and replication inside host cells, CAS searched for patent data related to those more well-studied coronaviruses.

C&EN has assembled the relevant small molecules identified by CAS, which can be explored by the stage in the viral life cycle they aim to disrupt.

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