By Tim Hornyak

Since the world might wait years for a coronavirus vaccine, drugs that can mitigate its effects are now in the spotlight. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir as an emergency treatment for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. While remdesivir is intended for the most severe cases, reducing recovery time, U.S. doctors are also testing an influenza drug made by a Japanese photography company amid hopes that it may help a wider range of patients.

U.S. trial under way

Favipiravir works by preventing the virus from replicating in cells. It’s marketed under the brand Avigan and was developed in 2014 by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical, a unit of Fujifilm Holdings. As he extended the nationwide state of emergency until May 31, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday he wants favipiravir approved for Covid-19 in May, as Japan moves to fast-track approval for remdesivir as well.

In April the government said it will triple the country’s stockpile to enough doses for 2 million people. Fujifilm Toyama Chemical is working to increase its monthly production by July to 100,000 treatment courses, defined as doses for a 14-day period, and 300,000 courses by September. The price of the drug has not been set in Japan, where the government decides medicine prices.

Japan is expected to ship the drug to 43 countries for clinical studies on its effectiveness against Covid-19. The shipment is being sent through the United Nations Office for Project Services, and each country will receive enough to treat between 20 and 100 people, Japan Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said last week.

Fujifilm began a phase 2 clinical trial in Massachusetts in April. The trial called for about 50 patients and is taking place in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“We expect the drug will enhance clearance of virus and shorten the duration of Covid-19 illness,” says Robert Finberg, chair of the school’s Department of Medicine. “Previous studies with this drug have indicated that it enhances clearance of influenza. We expect results in approximately one to two months.”

Early boost in China

Health centers in China and Japan have been studying favipiravir as a Covid-19 treatment for months. It also has been tested in Italy, and a trial is set to begin in India. In one clinical trial in China, patients taking the drug tested negative for coronavirus after a median of four days, less than half the 11 days it took for patients in a control group, the China National Center for Biotechnology Development said in March. It also found that 8.2% of favipiravir patients needed respiratory aid compared to 17.1% of the patients in the control group. Center director Zhang Xinmin called the drug “very safe and clearly effective” and without obvious side effects, Nikkei news reported.  

Japan approved favipiravir in 2014, but not for seasonal flu. It was given the OK for novel or reemerging influenza viruses when other antiviral drugs don’t work, and the government has to approve each case. There were no such cases in the past six years, but favipiravir was studied in a Japanese trial for ixodid tick-borne infectious disease and serious fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome. The government of Guinea also approved the drug as a standard treatment for patients with Ebola Virus Disease following a clinical trial in the West African country.

“Avigan is a viral RNA polymerase inhibitor, with a new mechanism of action that inhibits viral gene replication within infected cells,” says Kana Matsumoto, a spokesperson for Fujifilm. “Due to this characteristic, the drug may potentially have an antiviral effect on the viruses classified into the same type (single-stranded RNA virus) as influenza virus.”

Read the rest of the article at CNBC