Could arthritis med Kevzara hold promise against the novel coronavirus? Sanofi, Regeneron aim to find out

With health authorities around the globe scrambling to treat patients with the novel coronavirus, Regeneron and Sanofi are the latest drugmakers to explore an existing medicine's ability to aid in the fight.

The partners are preparing studies to test rheumatoid arthritis med Kevzara in patients who have contracted the virus, also called COVID-19, a Regeneron spokesman said. Kevzara, approved in 2017, might hold promise in helping patients’ immune systems stop attacking healthy cells, Sanofi’s global head of development for immunology and inflammation Naimish Patel told The Wall Street Journal. 

The move comes as a rival drug, Roche’s Actemra, has already gained attention for its potential to help patients with damage to their lung tissue. China’s National Health Commission recommended that medicine for patients with serious lung damage earlier this month, and Roche’s Genentech is weighing studies of the drug in COVID-19 patients, a spokesperson told the WSJ. 

Both drugs are IL-6 inhibitors, meaning they block a certain protein that causes the body to initiate an immune response. A Sanofi spokesman said there's "scientific rationale" for exploring the drug in pulmonary complications from COVID-19.

RELATED: China turns Roche arthritis drug Actemra against COVID-19 in new treatment guidelines 

As for the specifics of the Kevzara effort, Regeneron will lead the trials in the U.S., while Sanofi will lead the charge internationally.

The drug was developed and approved under a collaboration between the drugmakers, but it hasn’t been a commercial star on the market. In December, the companies restructured their collaboration so that Sanofi would take global rights to Kevzara and Regeneron would be in charge of PCSK9 cholesterol medicine Praluent, another drug that hasn't lived up to commercial expectations. The deal was designed to allow the partners to focus on anti-inflammatory drug Dupixent, which Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson has said could become a megablockbuster. 

That deal isn't "final," Sanofi's spokesman said, and the companies are in "active discussions on how COVID-19 may factor into this."

RELATED: Sanofi, Regeneron uncouple on long-standing drug partnership, splitting up Praluent, Kevzara 

The trial preparations are the latest example of biopharma companies either racing to develop new medicines or repurposing existing medicines against the novel coronavirus that has created a global crisis. It follows a move by Gilead to explore whether its antiviral remdesivir, originally developed to fight Ebola, can fight the infection. The company kicked off two phase 3 studies late last month. Gilead's drug has already been deployed in Washington state, which has been fighting a cluster of cases, CDC director Robert Redfield said Tuesday.

Numerous other drugmakers are developing drugs and vaccines, including Sanofi and Regeneron, which are working on their own separate efforts. Sanofi is working with the U.S. government on a vaccine, while Regeneron has partnered with HHS on antibodies.

As of Wednesday morning, the novel coronavirus had caused more than 120,000 infections and 4,300 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.