Look for novel coronavirus treatments first, experts say, and vaccines are further off than you think

A medical researcher conducting an experiment using a microscope
Researchers around the world are working on drugs or vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Some companies are testing whether existing medicines might work. (ESB Professional/Shutterstock)

What's the outlook for really fending off the novel coronavirus? Small molecule drugs and other therapeutics will obviously beat vaccines to market, and Gilead's remdesivir, if effective, could scale up fast, experts said.

Vaccines are likely further off than quoted timelines suggest. It's "overly optimistic" to expect them in 12 to 18 months, two opinion leaders told SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges.

They're "relatively optimistic" about Gilead's remdesivir "being effective and rapidly scaled to global demand for severe patients," the analyst wrote in a note to clients.

Gilead has started phase 3 studies of remdesivir in COVID-19 patients while federal health officials and others conduct their own studies. WHO officials have said the drug, originally developed for Ebola, is the most promising treatment. In Japan, the drug was given to some American cruise ship passengers who "were probably going to die in a short amount of time," an NIH doctor told the Wall Street Journal; none had died two weeks later.

Aside from that medicine, the experts don't believe existing HIV meds will be "viable therapies," Porges wrote. They do, however, see a rationale to explore whether ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers could help fight the infection. The experts said a monoclonal antibody therapy might reach the market "even before a vaccine," Porges wrote.

Worldwide, the biopharma industry is responding to an outbreak that has spread to more than 100 countries. The novel coronavirus has infected more than 130,000 people and killed more than 4,900 as of Friday. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic earlier this week.

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Some government officials have said a vaccine could be available within 12 to 18 months, but the experts told Porges that's "overly optimistic." Moderna's novel vaccine has been prepared for phase 1 testing in record time, but as the MIT Technology Review reminded its readers, that platform is unproven. As for therapeutics, analysts have said Gilead could have remdesivir data to report yet this month, but they're unsure whether early trial results would be conclusive. 

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