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Study identifies 3 existing drugs that may help treat COVID-19

A team of researchers has identified three repurposed drugs that may be effective in treating COVID-19.

In a new study, scientists have found three previously-available drugs that may be effective at treating COVID-19 in its early stages.

The research, which appears in the journal ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science, is valuable in helping researchers identify treatment candidates for clinical trials.

SARS-CoV-2 and its associated disease, COVID-19, have had a profoundly negative effect on global economies, culture, people’s everyday lives, and above all, on people’s health.

To date, there have been more than 1,150,000 recorded deaths from the disease. There is also mounting anecdotal evidence of the long-term negative health effects it can have on people who recover from the initial illness.

Due to COVID-19’s lethality, and the fact that the disease is highly contagious, scientists are rushing to develop a vaccine. However, producing vaccines that are also safe and effective takes a considerable amount of time.

According to a report in The Lancet, on average, vaccines take 10 years to develop. Even with experts greatly accelerating research due to the urgency of the global pandemic, the report notes that an initial vaccine may take more than 18 months to be developed, manufactured, and distributed to people around the world.

Consequently, scientists have been researching vaccines and potential treatments that may ultimately reduce the chance of a person dying if they develop the disease.

This typically involves repurposing previously available drugs that may also be effective in treating COVID-19. This is important as, much like developing a working vaccine, finding new drugs that can treat COVID-19 may take a long time.

To date, the only repurposed drug that has shown signs of being effective is remdesivir, originally developed to treat Ebola in 2014.

However, a recent major World Health Organization (WHO) study has found that remdesivir has no significant effect on COVID-19 mortality.

As a consequence, identifying effective drugs that experts can repurpose to treat COVID-19 is particularly pressing.

In this context, scientists behind the present study took a different approach in the search for potentially effective drugs to repurpose.

Typically, when scientists source drugs to repurpose, they use a technique called high throughput screening (HTS). This involves automating the testing of many different medications, allowing for a much more rapid process than using human teams. Researchers then analyze the results with a computer.

However, according to the current study team, there may be issues with HTS’s reliability and accuracy. Drawing on an article in the journal Patterns, they note that there has been little overlap in the potentially effective drugs identified in HTS studies.

Instead, in their study, the scientists used a ligand-based virtual screening (LBVS) protocol to identify drugs that may act similarly to the drug hydroxychloroquine.

Studies show hydroxychloroquine is effective against SARS-CoV-2 in test-tube experiments, even if it is unlikely to be effective in real life.

Importantly, the scientists verified their findings in test-tube experiments and then had their results independently tested to ensure their findings were accurate.

After using LBVS to study approximately 4,000 drugs, then verifying their findings, the scientists identified three that may be effective against COVID-19 and, in their opinion, should be made the subject of clinical trials.

These are the antimalarial drug amodiaquine, the anti-psychotic zuclopenthixol, and the blood pressure medication nebivolol.

The scientists believe that these may be particularly effective if combined with remdesivir or the antiviral drug favipiravir.

As Prof. Tudor Oprea, senior study author and professor of Medicine and Pharmaceutical Sciences and chief of the University of New Mexico Division of Translational Informatics, says:

“Think of it as a whack-a-mole game. Instead of having one hammer, you have two hammers, which is more effective. We’re trying to give the scientific community two hammers instead of one.”

As both remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine show, a drug may be effective in a test-tube while being ineffective in real life. However, in the case of the latter, the risks of treatment may outweigh the benefits.

Nonetheless, if scientists can identify an effective COVID-19 treatment, it could greatly reduce the mortality rate of the current pandemic. Therefore, the first step to doing this is identifying potential treatment candidates.

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