The World Health Organisation (WHO) played down media reports on Wednesday of “breakthrough” drugs being discovered to treat people infected with the new coronavirus, which is causing an epidemic in China and has spread to at least 20 other countries.
A Chinese TV report said researchers at Zhejiang University had found an effective drug for the virus, while Britain’s Sky News said researchers had made a “significant breakthrough” in developing a vaccine. Oil prices jumped on the reports.
Asked about the reports, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said: “There are no known effective therapeutics against this 2019-nCoV (virus) and the WHO recommends enrolment into a randomised controlled trial to test efficacy and safety.”
The process of developing and testing drugs or vaccines against a new pathogen normally takes many years and is often fraught with pitfalls and failures.
Even at the accelerated pace enabled by new technologies, the earliest that scientists hope to be able to start initial human trials of a new coronavirus vaccine is by June this year.
Doctors looking for ways to treat patients infected with the new coronavirus are likely to try antiviral medicines licensed for use against other viral infections to see if they might help, as well as potential antiviral drugs still in development.
The US drugmaker Gilead says it has started clinical trials of patients in China infected with the new coronavirus, using an experimental drug called remdesivir, but stressed that this work is investigational at this stage.
“It is not approved anywhere globally,” a Gilead spokesperson told Reuters in Beijing.
Gilead said it had increased manufacturing of remdesivir to create a stockpile that might be used in future viral disease outbreaks. “We are doing this before knowing whether the drug is safe and effective to treat 2019-nCoV,” the spokesperson said.