an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Covid 19: some stuff on remdesivir

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remdesivir, somewhat simplified, with its central phosphate group

Canto: So there’s this promising new antiviral drug that researchers are working on. Remdesivir. Terrible name. Why not something more hard-hitting like rambovir or rockyvir?

Jacinta: Well I’m not sure it’s an American drug, and I don’t think it’s new. It’s new for Covid-19. Everything’s new for Covid-19. And here we should repeat the standard caveat: ‘No specific agent has yet been demonstrated to be clinically effective in the management of Covid-19’.

Canto: Well done. So I’m reading this online article from a week or so ago – and a week’s a long time in Covid-19 – on the website of the Medical Journal of Australia, and it tells me that the antimicrobial remdesivir is ‘an investigational nucleotide prodrug’ – glad it’s not one of them antidrugs – and was used on the first diagnosed Covid-19 sufferer in the US. So maybe it is American. The article doesn’t say anything about its effect on the patient, but apparently it was first developed as a potential therapy for Ebola, and there’s some laboratory evidence that it can inhibit the replication of SARS-CoV-2.

Jacinta: That’s right, so four clinical trials have already begun in the US to test the effects of remdesivir, and another two are registered in China.

Canto: Well according to this media release only yesterday (April 17) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, they’ve already been testing the drug on poor old rhesus macaques…

Jacinta: They infected em? Bastards.

Canto: History is written by the victors my friend. And also by those who can actually write. Anyway, they responded very well to early treatment with reduced clinical signs and lung damage in a study designed to simulate treatment procedures for human patients in a hospital setting…

Jacinta: That’s nice. They got to sleep in real beds, like middle-class macaques.

Canto: Maybe. Of course, none of this has been peer-reviewed yet, but it’s very promising. But let me give you the total lowdown. You know that there have to be control groups, right?

Jacinta: Uhhh – uh-o. So… Let me see, they were all infected with the virus, but only some got the remdesivir, right?

Canto: Well of course they had to make the comparison. So they had two groups of six rhesus macaques, and they infected both groups with SARS-CoV-2. Then 12 hours later the treatment group received an injection of remdesivir. Sorry about the other group. After that the treatment group received a booster injection every day for the next six days. The initial treatment was timed to more or less coincide with the animals’ highest projected viral load. They first examined the animals 12 hours after initial treatment, and the treatment seemed pretty effective, only one still showed some mild symptoms, while in the control group they all displayed ‘rapid and difficult breathing’ …

Jacinta: Called dyspnoea in medical lingo.

Canto: Thank you. So the study continued for seven days, and over that time the treated monkeys were found to have significantly less virus in, and damage to, their lungs than the untreated.

Jacinta: So what happened to the untreated monkeys after that?

Canto: I might say ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that after seven days they were treated with remdesivir and recovered. And that they chose a short, seven-day testing period so as not to endanger any monkey lives?

Jacinta: Hmmm. I don’t know too much about monkey business… Anyway, this remdesivir is obviouly promising and we must watch out for the results of other trials. But what is this remdesivir? What exactly is an antiviral, or a ‘nucleotide prodrug’, and do they all act in the same way? I know they’re not vaccines, they don’t induce antibodies, so how do they suppress the infection?

Canto: Okay, so our first stop on our info crawl is Wikipedia. Think of antivirals as a counterpart to antibiotics, aimed at viruses rather than bacterial pathogens, except that, unlike most antibiotics, their aim is to suppress rather than to kill the pathogen.

Jacinta: Really? Why not aim to kill the virus?

Canto: I don’t know, perhaps that’s not so easy with viruses. Anyway, while most antivirals target specific viruses, some are broad-spectrum, and I suppose remdesivir is one of those, since it was also successful against MERS, another coronavirus, and was first developed to combat Ebola virus, which isn’t a coronavirus as far as I know.

Jacinta: Remdesivir was earlier described as a nucleotide prodrug. A nucleotide is the basic structural unit of a nucleic acid such as RNA. A prodrug is by definition an inactive biological or pharmacological compound that can be converted within the body to have active drug properties. So the field of antiviral drug research has developed a lot, especially as a result of the HIV epidemic, and those that followed. All of this has expanded our knowledge of how viruses enter hosts and proliferate. SARS-CoV-2 is a set of RNA nucleotides surrounded by a protein capsid, or capsule, over which is a lipid envelope. It enters the host via the spike protein, and through this membrane fusion it infects host T lymphocytes – white blood cells that form a part of our immune system.

Canto: Yes, and trying to describe it all in lay terms – so that we understand it – is damn difficult. We know remdesivir has been somewhat effective for a broad spectrum of action against RNA viruses, and I note in this abstract that it’s ‘a nucleotide analog inhibitor of RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRps)’ My guess is this means it acts like a nucleotide, inhibiting these RDRps. An RNA polymerase, I’m learning, is an enzyme (a type of protein) that’s ‘responsible for copying a DNA sequence into an RNA sequence, during the process of transcription’. But maybe an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase works on RNA, in the absence of DNA. So presumably remdesivir inhibits this essential enzyme from carrying out the transcription process that replicates the virus.

Jacinta: Maybe. By the way, as we travel the net on our info crawl, we’ve discovered some amazing stuff, such as this Covid-19 pandemic series of ongoing videos from a source called MedCram that began in late January and traces the spread, and the drama. The series begins with these words: ‘one of the things that’s in the news and hopefully goes away real soon is the coronavirus epidemic from 2019…’ That, to me, was more compelling than any advertising hook I’ve ever read.

Canto: Yes I’m keen to watch the whole series. Anyway, I believe remdesivir, also called RDV, has been used in an unauthorised way on human subjects already, and news from this Chemical and Engineering News website is that, understandably, interest in the drug and in scaling up production is reaching fever pitch, with a lot of pressure on Gilead, the company that presumably has a patent on RDV.

Jacinta: Of course, as we’ve already pointed out, this is exactly not the time for one private company to get precious about its rights to profit. Scaling up, assuming the drug’s effectiveness can be confirmed, should involve multiple labs in multiple countries. Having said that, producing a drug like RDV, described as a ‘medium complexity project’ compared to an apparently simpler drug such as the antimalarial drug hydrochloroquine, already involves a chain of companies and suppliers in a multi-step process. Every step in the process would need to be efficient, to prevent bottlenecks. Scaling-up also raises questions – remember Tamiflu? Our government stockpiled it in vast amounts in spite of damning analyses by the Cochrane Collaboration and others about its limited effectiveness and problematic side-effects. We don’t yet have proper analysis of RDV’s effectiveness, and we don’t know how much of it might be required, because nobody can predict the eventual course of this pandemic.

Canto: All true, but right now people are dying, and this is clearly the worst pandemic in more than a century. There are of course candidates other than RDV, it would be unwise to focus on just one, but public and private resources should be combined to bring any possible effective treatment to fruition. That’s what I reckon.


How coronavirus kills: acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) & Covid-19 treatment (one of the first in an excellent ongoing video series on the Covid-19 pandemic)

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2020 at 12:58 pm

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