J&J warns doctors not to count on Prezista as a COVID-19 treatment

Drugmakers are looking at all options for a possible therapeutic for COVID-19 as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues its spread. One area with some promise? HIV meds––but one drugmaker is tamping down hopes in that arena based on a lack of supporting data. 

As at least one other Big Pharma works to repurpose an HIV-fighter to treat COVID-19, Johnson & Johnson shot down chances of doing the same with Prezista (darunavir), at least for now.

On Monday, J&J cited "anecdotal, unsubstantiated claims" of Prezista's use as an antiviral therapy for patients with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and warned doctors against folding the drug into their clinical practice. 

Not only did J&J stamp out hopes of using Prezista for COVID-19, it also argued that using HIV protease inhibitors in general might be based on "limited unpublished virologic and clinical data in the treatment of patients infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus"—not the novel form that just cropped up last year in China.

J&J also noted that Prezista should only be used in combination with a "boosting" agent or other antivirals due to safety concerns.

J&J isn't saying there's no hope that Prezista—or combination formulas containing it—might fight the new virus. It has donated three darunavir products for Chinese clinical trials and continues to evaluate darunavir and other compounds in vitro as possible treatments for COVID-19.

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J&J's warning against adopting Prezista as a COVID-19 treatment comes as at least one drugmaker, AbbVie, seeks to repurpose its own HIV med to help combat the virus. 

Last week, AbbVie announced it was working with global health authorities to determine the efficacy of HIV med Kaletra after "unconfirmed media reports" out of China raised hopes for the drug's repurposing. 

AbbVie said it had no access to Chinese clinical data to determine Kaletra's ability to treat severe COVID-19 after the company donated the drug to the Chinese government in late January. 

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Meanwhile, J&J is still in the thick of the race for a novel coronavirus vaccine after it joined with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in February to accelerate vaccine development against COVID-19. 

Both partners are chipping in funding to get the vaccine into the clinic, and the government could provide more money for further development. Alongside the R&D effort, J&J is readying production facilities so that it can “meet global health needs” if the shot is deployed.