Scientists rush to analyze existing drugs for coronavirus treatment

Scientists in Japan are rushing to beat the COVID-19 disease by analyzing with supercomputers existing drugs that can be used against the new virus infections as the outbreak quickly spreads around the world.

New drugs normally take more than 10 years to develop, but established drugs have the benefit of a proven track record and can cut the research time needed for developing treatments for infection by the new virus, the experts say.

The coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December. Since then, the virus has infected nearly 90,000 people and killed more than 3,000, with a majority of those impacted being in mainland China, according to the World Health Organization.

Prompt provision of data from China’s scientific community has been helpful in the fight to contain the virus, including the public release of the virus’s genome sequence around Jan 10, the experts say.

“Once information becomes available, experiments can be conducted. We started our research at the end of January after the virus’s genome was released publicly,” said Haruki Nakamura, a team leader at the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development.

“Drugs that already exist have a higher potential for quick usage,” said Nakamura, a professor at the National Institute of Genetics.

The agency expects the first results of the computer simulation on the effectiveness of the existing drugs, to come out by the end of March.

Japan’s health minister, Katsunobu Kato, said in late February, the country is considering using Avigan, an anti-influenza medication, to treat the novel coronavirus. An HIV drug has also been used for treatment.

Scientists have discovered that the new coronavirus and the virus that caused the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, are more than 80 percent genetically identical.

“That knowledge explains the speed of the responses by the scientific community,” says Masakazu Sekijima, an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

His team is analyzing data with supercomputers on the virus’s structure, shared by ShanghaiTech University in late January, to find out how HIV and other drugs used in the treatment of COVID-19, on a trial basis, respond to the new coronavirus.

“I’d like to use artificial intelligence to clarify the reasons they work, and find a highly effective treatment with few side effects,” he said.

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