While scientists are racing to develop new vaccines against COVID-19, others believe the fastest and most effective strategy of developing treatments may lie in repurposing drugs that already proven safe and can be mass produced at a faster rate.
“New drugs take years, and hundreds and millions of dollars to develop,” said Steve Kirsch, founder of San Francisco-based COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund.
Kirsh, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, is hoping to help researchers identify early treatments for people with COVID-19 by establishing CETF in April. It is focused on funding outpatient trials of repurposed drugs where participants do not have to stay overnight at the hospital.
“I have multiple risk factors … if I got the virus, I have a 20 percent chance of dying,” Kirsch said. “I was interested in saving my life in the event I contracted COVID, and also the lives of my family and friends, and other people.”
One trial at the University of California, Los Angeles, approved by CETF will test the effectiveness of the oral drug Favipiravir, an anti-influenza medication. And researchers at Stanford University are conducting the first outpatient clinical trial of Favipiravir in the United States, which does not involve CETF, to assess whether the oral drug can reduce the severity of people’s symptoms and lower transmission rates.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the antiviral drug called Remdesivir, originally created as a general antiviral and later tested in patients with the Ebola virus. While the drug has been proven effective in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients, Remdesivir is too expensive and difficult to administer to a broader population, according to Kirsch. After all, it is administered intravenously through an IV drip.
Another repurposed drug in CETF’s clinical trial pipeline is Interferon Lambda. It has been tested on people with either Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C virus, according to CETF. And the trials of the drug for people with COVID-19 are conducted by a team at Stanford University and researchers at other institutions.
Even though some of the CETF-approved trials are now underway, others such as the UCLA trial of Favipiravir are still pending for funding from CETF.
“We are strapped for cash. We’ve raised only three million. We need 20 million,” Kirsch said. “For $20 million, we will find something that is effective against this virus that is costing us trillions of dollars.”