China repurposes AbbVie HIV drug as Big Pharma rallies to combat deadly coronavirus

To battle the coronavirus emergency, Chinese government and medical experts are taking some unconventional measures, including publicly backing off-label use of a Big Pharma drug. 

AbbVie’s fixed-dose HIV drug Kaletra—also known as Aluvia, is now recommended as a treatment for pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV, China’s National Health Commission says in its updated clinical guidance.

In response, the Illinois pharma is donating CNY 10 million (about $1.5 million) worth of the drug to help contain the virus, its China branch said (Chinese) Friday.

Kaletra’s two antiretroviral components, lopinavir and ritonavir, are protease inhibitors designed to block HIV viral replication. One hypothesis holds that the drugs could do the same with 2019-nCoV, which is believed to have originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Although not approved to treat any coronavirus anywhere, it has shown efficacy in at least one case in the current outbreak in China.

Wang Guangfa, the leader of Peking University First Hospital’s pulmonary and critical care medicine department, contracted the virus as a member of a national expert team dispatched to Wuhan. Kaletra killed his disease, Wang told state-run China News Service in a report (Chinese) on Thursday.

RELATED: Gilead mulls repositioning failed Ebola drug in China virus

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Kaletra has worked against a coronavirus. In a historical control study in 2004, “the combination of lopinavir and ritonavir among SARS-CoV patients was associated with substantial clinical benefit (fewer adverse clinical outcomes),” Chinese researchers noted in a newly published The Lancet study, which describes the clinical features of the first 41 patients infected with 2019-nCoV.

However, the study authors and the government both cautioned that there are no treatments confirmed to be effective against the new pathogen.

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is also caused by a coronavirus, and the older pathogen bears much resemblance to the newly emerged one. SARS hit China hard during a 2002-2003 epidemic, killing about 700 in the country alone. As of Sunday, 2019-nCoV has led to 2,744 confirmed infections in all parts of China and killed 80 people, according to Chinese authorities.

China has adopted various measures to contain the virus, including putting Wuhan—population 11 million—on complete quarantine, implementing the highest level of public health response across the country, and extending the Chinese New Year holiday to avoid large-scale migration that could contribute to disease spread. Drugmakers are stepping up their efforts as well.

RELATED: Inovio, Moderna score CEPI funding for vaccine work against deadly coronavirus

Antiviral specialist Gilead Sciences is considering repurposing its failed Ebola drug remdesivir for the virus. Moderna Therapeutics is working with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on the development of an mRNA vaccine, with some funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Johnson & Johnson also just unveiled a plan to expedite work on a vaccine. Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals secured $9 million CEPI funding for its own program.

In China, besides AbbVie’s Kaletra contribution, Bayer on Sunday also said it would donate CNY 6.5 million worth of medicines and another CNY 4.5 million in cash to help purchase medical protection products for Wuhan.

Local operations of Roche, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, J&J, Allergan, GlaxoSmithKline, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Fresenius Kabi and Takeda have all announced plans to donate money or products in the million-yuan range each to support the cause.