The number of people affected by the coronavirus exploded in Wuhan, Covid-19, has risen steadily, with the latest reported case count exceeding 45.000 (at least, but we'll approach the University of Hong Kong's estimate). It far exceeds the budget of the 2003 SARS epidemic.
Many companies have already reported working on manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines, including a collaboration between the Modern mRNA company and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). But even rapid vaccine development may be too slow to cope with a growing outbreak. In the last few hours, however, a joint US-Korea research has insisted on the name of an anti-HIV antiviral, Atazanavir, as a candidate for use for a cure. Because?
There is no time, already existing drugs are tested
Other companies are taking a different perspective: testing existing antiviral drugs. Gilead Sciences stated it will partner with China for a randomized controlled trial designed to evaluate its antiviral candidate Remdesivir as a potential treatment for the Covid-19 coronavirus. The same drug, Remdesivir,
was given to the only Italian infected so far.
Another example is the use of lopinavir and Ritonavir, other HIV anti-virals (sold as Kaletra by AbbVie) on 41 patients in Wuhan.
The crucial importance of AI
Despite the potential of these drugs, some researchers are turning to artificial intelligence to quickly find potential antivirals to test against Covid-19.
An international collaboration between researchers of the Deargen and from Dankook University in the Republic of Korea and Emory University in the United States, published a prediction model for antiviral drugs that could be effective on Coronavirus.
The work is published in the article "Predicting commercially available antiviral drugs that could act on the novel coronavirus Covid-19, Wuhan, China, through a deep learning model of drug-target interaction" published on bioRxiv.
"Out of pure scientific curiosity we wanted to see if our artificial intelligence model could suggest a drug that could be used against Covid-19", he observed Keunsoo Kang, PhD, assistant professor at Dankook University and senior author of the paper. It was a "drug repurposing" approach, Kang says, to use existing antivirals on another virus. For this reason the results show only suggestions of antivirals already present and available on the market.
The team used a pre-trained drug-target interaction model based on deep learning, Molecule Transformer-Drug Target Interaction (MT-DTI), to identify commercially available drugs that may act on 2019-nCoV viral proteins. MT-DTI is a model originally designed to predict an affinity score between a drug and a protein.
Coronavirus, the identikit of the most fit opponent leads to a name: Atazanavir
The result showed that Atazanavir, an antiretroviral drug used to treat and prevent human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is the most promising chemical compound.
The model showed that Atazanavir has the greatest inhibitory potency against several components of the virus.
Kang speculated that the high antiviral effects of Atazanavir "Can be explained by the MT-DTI results which show the highest inhibitory potency on viral proteinase".
This group is not alone in identifying proteinases as targets for curbing the Covid-19 epidemic.
Researchers from the Army Medical University of Chongqing, China, have published a bioRxiv prepress. Is called "Therapeutic drugs targeted at 2019-nCoV by high-throughput screening". Using high-throughput screening based on 8.000 clinical drugs, they identified four small molecular drugs that bind the main SARS-CoV protease.
The authors noted that these drugs were shown to be safe. Therefore, they could be promising candidates to join the battle against the epidemic.
Science calls for softer rules to intervene on Covid-19
Regulations in circumstances such as this coronavirus outbreak are unclear. Kang wonders if softer regulations combined with broad support from governments could help doctors prescribe these optional measures more easily to patients given the situation.
We need to allow the use of Atazanavir and other high-end antiviral drugs, the researchers say.