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South Korean virologist targets 2 medications

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2020-05-25 09:06

Editor's note: This news column showcases stories from around the world that bring a touch of positivity to the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

As the world races to find vaccines and a cure for COVID-19, South Korean virologist Kim Seung-taek is trying to find a treatment through drug repositioning.

After research that scanned about 3,000 drugs, including 1,500 approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, Kim's team identified 24 drugs that showed potential effectiveness in fighting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Among the candidates, ciclesonide and niclosamide are the two drugs his team is working on to find their potential as antiviral drugs, said Kim, head of the Zoonotic Virus Lab at Institut Pasteur Korea, or IPK, a research center in Seongnam city, South Korea, focused on infectious diseases.

"We were particularly interested in these two drugs because there were additional experimental evidences, either from our own or from other research groups, which support our conclusions," he said.

Ciclesonide is a component of asthma medication which is sold under the brand name Alvesco. IPK said it only took one day, significantly shorter than the usual 30 days, to get the approval from South Korea's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to conduct a clinical trial on Alvesco.

Niclosamide is a parasiticide. According to IPK's research, niclosamide's antiviral efficacy against COVID-19 in cell experiments is 40 times and 26 times higher than remdesivir and chloroquine, respectively.

Remdesivir is an experimental antiviral drug developed by US pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, while chloroquine is an anti-malaria medication that has been widely used for years. Both are being studied by international experts as treatment options for the disease.

In mid-April, IPK partnered with healthcare company Daewoong Holdings, whose subsidiaries Daewoong Therapeutics, or DT, and Daewoong Pharmaceutical, or DP, are preparing to enter a clinical trial of niclosamide, according to IPK.

DT has been working on a new formulation called DWRX2003, which contains niclosamide, to develop it into a treatment for refractory lung disease. Based on the research result by Kim's team, the company decided to concurrently develop the formulation into a treatment.

A proposal for the clinical trial is expected to be submitted in July, but the timeline will depend on the efficacy test in primate experiments planned for May.

As some drugs are being tested in clinical trials in South Korea and some, like niclosamide, are being further developed for trials, Kim said the next step for his team is to identify more drug candidates and to expand collaboration for their further development.

"Updates from our lab would be available by publication of papers in the near future," he said.

'Grave responsibility'

For now, Kim said he still cannot tell when the drug might be available to the general public as this can only be discussed when the current clinical trials generate positive results.

"As a virologist, I feel a grave responsibility (during this pandemic)," said Kim, noting the current situation demands more direct contribution from virologists.

"I think I am doing my job by conducting research, which can be immediately applied in clinical settings, and by giving relevant scientific information to the general public," Kim said.

When Kim first started to work on the coronavirus about three months ago, there were only a few people in his lab working on the it. "But these people did the best job and we completed our initial screening with FDA-approved drugs much faster than any other research group in the world," he said.

Noting that China has been sharing much information with the international community, Kim said such information, including the identification of SARS-CoV-2 as the causative agent of COVID-19, was also helpful for his research.

"Since many clinical trials are being conducted in China, sharing the results from those trials with the global community would help a lot," he said, hoping to see more information-sharing from China.

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