Gilead's COVID-19 Drug Trial In Wuhan Is Already Facing Serious Delays

Last month, markets found reason for optimism in reports that Gilead had teamed up with Beijing to test a new antiviral at the epicenter of the virus. Now, it's beginning to look like those moves were a little premature.

According to WSJ, the trials, aimed at testing more than 700 patients infected with the Wuhan coronavirus, have only managed to recruit 200 people after just 10 days.

A total of 168 patients with severe symptoms, and 17 patients with mild and moderate symptoms, were recruited at 11 medical institutes across Wuhan, Zhang Xinmin, an official from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, said at a Saturday press conference.

This is due in part to restrictions severely limiting the number of eligible patients: Patients had to be "within 12 days of the illness’s onset and couldn’t have taken other treatments within the past 30 days to qualify," according to Gilead's screening criteria for patients with 'severe' symptoms. For those with only 'mild' or 'moderate' symptoms who want to join the trials, they must be within eight days of the illness’s onset. All candidates must have tested positive for the virus via lab tests.

According to WSJ, these strict criteria pretty much exclude most COVID-19 sufferers who started taking medication at home.

Video footage seen by WSJ shows that the Gilead drug, known as remdesivir, was first administered intravenously on Feb. 6 to a 68-year-old man who had developed severe symptoms and was treated at Jinyintan Hospital.

It is unclear whether the patient was given the drug as part of a trial, or for emergency use because he was on his deathbed.

Zhao Jianping, a doctor at Wuhan Tongji Hospital who leads a team overseeing treatment for coronavirus patients, said earlier this month that two-thirds of the severe patients would be given the drug during trials, while the others would be given a placebo. Those in the placebo group would also receive 'the standard treatment'.

A Gilead spokeswoman said the two studies, for severe and more moderate cases, were initiated about a week apart and are being conducted by Chinese officials, not Gilead. "Any questions about the status of those studies would be best addressed by the principal investigator," she said.

Other than remedesivir, the antimalarial drug chloroquine and the influenza drug favipiravir have also been shown to be effective in the treatment of patients. Meanwhile, Sun Yanrong, another official at the ministry, said separately on Monday that, based on preliminary clinical trials results, chloroquine has proven effective in treating the virus with no immediate side-effects.

Chinese state-owned drug giants including China Resources Pharmaceutical and China Medicine Health are ratcheting up production of drugs like chloroquine that have proven effective at treating patients infected with the virus.

Fortunately, Gilead and the Chinese government aren't the only ones desperately seeking a vaccine. Japan Today reports that Japan is planning a trial to test the efficacy of various HIV medications on patients infected with COVID-19 as more experts raise the possibility that the virus was bioengineered.

Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, said Tuesday that the government is "currently conducting preparations so that clinical trials using HIV medication on the novel coronavirus can start as soon as possible."

Suga said he couldn't comment on how long it would take for the new drug to be approved, but experts around the world have repeatedly warned that a vaccine could take up to 18 months to produce (though Japan is simply testing whether certain preexisting meds might work to combat the outbreak).

While research ramps up, experts still suspect that a vaccine is more than a year away. Meanwhile, no treatment has been 100% effective.