Last week, the Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm announced the start of phase III clinical trials of Avigan, an influenza antiviral drug that is being experimented with in many countries for the treatment of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
As there is still no specific cure for COVID-19, medicines used for other ailments are being repurposed around the world for it. Drugs for malaria, HIV, arthritis, among others have been administered to COVID-19 patients, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The anti-influenza drug Avigan (generic name: Favipiravir), which showed promising results when it was repurposed during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, is now being touted as a ray of hope in the treatment of COVID-19 as well.
What is Favipiravir?
Developed by Toyama Chemicals, a subsidiary of the Japanese photography company Fujifilm, Favipiravir was originally intended to be used as an antiviral in the treatment of influenza. It received regulatory approval in Japan in 2014 and was marketed as Avigan.
Japan supplied Favipiravir to affected countries as emergency aid during the Ebola virus epidemic of 2014-16, which claimed over 11,000 lives. The drug was effective in bringing down mortality rates from 30 per cent to 15 per cent when administered to those with low to moderate viral loads, according to an article in Wired.
According to a Time report, countries such as Japan and the US built stockpiles of the drug over the years for emergency medication during seasonal flu. The medicine was also stockpiled by the UAE during the MERS epidemic (which is also caused by a coronavirus).
Use during the novel coronavirus pandemic
The drug has shown promising results in treating patients at a mild or moderate stage of COVID-19. It has been used as an emergency measure to stop the disease from worsening when treatment becomes more challenging.
According to the Time report, since the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is an RNA virus like the influenza A and B viruses, Favipiravir could potentially also work against the former. The drug is less effective when the virus has already multiplied, according to a The Guardian report.
According to some studies, its side effects may include fetal deaths or deformities. It is hence not prescribed for patients who are pregnant.
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Towards the end of February, as the coronavirus pandemic had made inroads into Japan, Fujifilm began producing the drug on a large scale to treat COVID-19 patients as an emergency measure.
In dozens of cases, it showed signs of being able to relieve symptoms of the disease, reports said.
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China also administered the drug to its patients. On March 18, an official at China’s ministry of science and technology endorsed the drug, saying that it was “very safe and clearly effective” in treating 340 patients.
On March 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government would begin trial procedures to push for the quick approval of Avigan as a treatment for the coronavirus.
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