WASHINGTON, United States – American scientists on Wednesday hailed a potential breakthrough in the coronavirus fight as a trial showed patients responding to antiviral drug remdesivir, fuelling global hopes for a return to normal.
The medical news was enough to propel a rebound on Wall Street even after data showed the pandemic had plunged the United States into its worst economic slump in a decade and Germany predicted its biggest recession since the aftermath of World War II.
In the first proof of successful treatment against the illness that has claimed more than 230,000 lives globally, a clinical trial of the drug remdesivir showed that patients recovered more than 30 percent quicker than those on a placebo.
Dr Anthony Fauci, who oversaw the study, told reporters at the White House: “The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.”
Fauci, the veteran top US scientist in the fight against infectious diseases, likened the finding to the first retrovirals that worked, albeit with modest success, against HIV in the 1980s.
The trial, which involved 1,063 people across 68 locations in the US, Europe and Asia, showed that “a drug can block this virus”, Fauci said.
Remdesivir failed in trials against the Ebola virus and a smaller study, released last week by the World Health Organisation (WHO), found limited effects among patients in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected last year.
Senior WHO official Michael Ryan declined to weigh in on the latest findings Wednesday, saying he had not reviewed the complete study.
“I think a lot more data will come out,” he told reporters.
“We are all hoping – fervently hoping – that one or more of the treatments currently under observation and under trial will result in altering clinical outcomes” and reducing deaths, he said.
The UN body said its emergency committee will meet on Thursday for the first time since it declared coronavirus an international emergency three months ago.
US President Donald Trump has assailed the WHO as not responding quickly or aggressively enough, although critics say he is trying to deflect from his own response.
US deaths from the virus this week reached 60,475 as of Wednesday night.
The United States has suffered the most deaths, with Britain’s toll on Wednesday becoming the world’s third worst at 26,097. More than 27,000 people have died in Italy.
The trial’s main goal was to evaluate how long patients take to recover on versus off the drug – with three different categories of recovery: hospitalised but no longer needing oxygen; discharged from hospital but still limited in their home activities; and discharged from hospital with no limits on home activities.
Without numeric data it is hard to judge just how well patients did but Gilead’s statement indicates there was an overall improvement over the placebo.
It is a Phase 3 trial, the final stage before any medication can receive regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Remdesivir belongs to a class of drugs that act on the virus directly, as opposed to controlling the abnormal and often lethal autoimmune response it causes.
It mimics one of the four building blocks of RNA and DNA and gets absorbed into the virus’s genome, which in turn stops the pathogen from replicating.
The antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are also being widely used against Covid-19 on a so-called “compassionate basis” pending results from large trials, with early studies decidedly mixed.
Other therapies that are being studied include collecting antibodies from Covid-19 survivors and injecting them in patients, or harvesting antibodies from genetically-engineered mice that were deliberately infected.
Experts have warned that only a full-scale vaccine will allow the full removal of restrictions that put half of humanity under some form of lockdown.
But governments are increasingly loosening the more suffocating rules in the face of devastating impact on the global economy.
The United States announced that economic output collapsed 4.8 per cent in the first quarter, ending more than a decade of expansion. – AFP