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Infectious Diseases

07 February 2020

How are doctors treating coronavirus while waiting for a cure?

As the coronavirus spreads, scientists are doing their utmost to find a cure. But how are medical practitioners coping in the meantime?

The coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 is continuing to spread worldwide. Sources are estimating the total number of infections at around 24 000, but it is hard to establish the exact number with so many new infections.

Currently, there is no vaccine to curb contamination, even though scientists are doing their utmost. There is also currently no specific treatment for the novel coronavirus. In the meantime, however, what are medical practitioners doing when a patient is admitted?

1. Repurposing existing antiviral drugs

According to Prof Stephen Morse from Columbia University’s Mailman School for Public Health, antivirals haven’t been very effective in the past – but the situation is changing.

Antivirals are drugs that reduce the ability of viruses to multiply.

Most viral diseases, with the exception of those caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are self-limited illnesses that do not require specific antiviral therapy, according to the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The currently available antiviral drugs target three main groups of viruses: herpes, hepatitis, and influenza. We’ve heard of Tamiflu being administered during the swine flu outbreak in 2009, for example. All of these drugs, with the exception of antivirals for HIV, are made by using the virus’s specific DNA.

In the case of coronavirus, repurposed antivirals manufactured to tackle other viruses are used to treat symptoms, as experts reckon it’s worthwhile trying everything that’s available while waiting for a coronavirus-specific antiviral.

2.  Combining a cocktail of drugs

Instead of waiting for the arrival of a specific “miracle drug”, doctors are looking towards combining drugs to target the different stages of replication of the virus. For example, Thai doctors have recently used a combination of drugs used for flu and HIV with some success, as reported by Health24.

The treatment involves HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, and the flu drug oseltamivir.

3. Trialling new treatments

Based on the above methods, it has been reported that China has kick-started a clinical trial to test a new drug.

The new antiviral, remdesivir, created by pharmaceutical company Gilead, aims to tackle infectious diseases such as Ebola. While the drug has not yet been approved by any drug regulator in the world, the process has been sped up to allow the new drug to be used on coronavirus patients in the absence of an existing specific treatment.

Globally, other attempts to develop therapies for the coronavirus are carrying on. 

4. Using traditional Chinese medicine

The New York Times recently reported that the Chinese government is recommending a traditional Chinese medicine called the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill. This is made from the gallstone of cattle, buffalo horn, jasmine and pearl.

While the Chinese government recognises the potential of combining drugs and using existing antivirals, they are also looking at remedies that are part of their national heritage.

Cheng Yung-chi, a professor of pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine commented that it was the correct approach to be used while waiting for a new drug to be developed.

Image credit: iStock