Merck KGaA donates multiple sclerosis med Rebif to French COVID-19 trial

Merck kgaa
Merck KGaA's Rebif was initially approved by the FDA to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis back in 2002. (Merck KGaA)

With drugmakers scouring their portfolios for possible COVID-19 therapeutics, meds approved years ago are now being viewed with fresh eyes. That's the case for Merck KGaA's aging multiple sclerosis med Rebif, which French researchers are now hoping could help ease symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus.

Merck KGaA has donated samples of Rebif to France's Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale for use in a trial evaluating the drug's effect on COVID-19 patients, the drugmaker said Thursday.

Rebif, an anti-inflammatory the FDA originally approved to treat relapsing MS back in 2002, is the first MS med known to be evaluated as a treatment for COVID-19.

"As Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is a company that is dedicated to human progress and to making a lasting difference on patients’ lives, we are fully committed to contributing to solutions related to global health crises such as COVID-19," the company said in a statement.

RELATED: Bayer donates millions of tablets of chloroquine to help in COVID-19 fight

So far, pharma companies have focused most of their resources on repurposing trials for antivirals––such as Gilead Sciences' remdesivir and multiple HIV meds––and anti-inflammatory IL-6 inhibitors, including Sanofi and Regeneron's Kevzara, Roche's Actemra and EUSA Pharma's Sylvant. Other left-field options like malaria med chloroquine have also been donated to the effort.

Thursday, Bayer confirmed it was donating 3 million tablets of chloroquine, a decades-old drug that's long gone generic, to the U.S. as a possible therapeutic for COVID-19. Chloroquine isn’t approved to treat patients suffering from novel coronavirus infections, but some early studies have shown promise.

In France, for instance, a professor conducted a small study of the malaria drug in 24 patients with novel coronavirus infections. Of those who received the medicine, only 25% tested positive for the virus after six days, according to en24. Meanwhile, of those who didn't receive it, 90% tested positive after that time frame. The French government now plans to run larger studies.

U.S. officials have placed a certain degree of hope in the drug, with President Donald Trump saying during a press conference Thursday the U.S. would make the drug available by prescription “almost immediately.”

Meanwhile, Gilead's remdesivir has already entered phase 3 trials, while Kevzara and Actemra have both announced trials of their own.

RELATED: Roche launches clinical trial of COVID-19 pneumonia hopeful Actemra after backing from China

Thursday, Roche said it was working with the FDA to start a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 clinical trial to study Actemra in hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia.

Roche and its partner, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, plan to officially begin enrolling patients in early April in different parts of the world, including the U.S.

Earlier this week, Sanofi and Regeneron said they were enrolling patients in a phase 2/3 clinical program for Kevzara, with a two-part U.S. arm pulling in 400 patients across 16 states.

The first segment of the trial will study Kevzara's impact on fever and patients’ need for supplemental oxygen while a second segment will focus on longer-term outcomes, including preventing death and cutting the need for supportive care such as mechanical ventilation, supplemental oxygen and/or hospitalization, the partners said.

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