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News Navigator: Why are treatments for other viruses being tested on the coronavirus?

This supplied electron micrograph shows the new coronavirus that was first identified in central China's Wuhan city. (Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about existing medications that could be effective against the novel coronavirus.

Question: I've been reading reports recently that some treatments appear to work against the novel coronavirus. Which ones are they talking about?

Answer: The Japanese government has revealed that from February it has been going ahead with clinical studies in which patients infected with the novel coronavirus are given medicine for other viruses to see if it will have any effect. Specifically, the drugs trialed are used to treat against viruses causing influenza, AIDS, Ebola and other conditions.

Q: Why are they trying out these other drugs?

A: The reproductive mechanism of the novel coronavirus has reportedly been found to resemble those of other viruses. For example, when the influenza virus enters a person's cells, it releases ribonucleic acid (RNA), the equivalent of its genetic material.

After that, an enzyme called RNA polymerase replicates the RNA, enabling the virus to reproduce and spread. This enzyme appears to be also involved in the reproduction of the novel coronavirus in the human body, and it is hoped that existing influenza treatments will be compatible with the virus, too.

Q: How are components of other treatments expected to work against the novel coronavirus?

A: The mechanism for medicine to treat HIV differs slightly. HIV that have entered cells use a different type of protease enzyme to cut up proteins, which enable the virus to reproduce itself. Drugs are being developed for common usage that will block this process. It's hypothesized that the reproduction of the novel coronavirus in the body could be contained using the same mechanism. It also appears that patients suffering from COVID-19 who have been administered with HIV medication have seen improvements in their symptoms.

Q: Are there any other initiatives using other methods or treatments?

A: Yes. A research team at the University of Tokyo is using existing pancreatitis treatments to see if they too could be effective against the novel coronavirus. If these drugs are confirmed to have some kind of influence against it, then it could possibly be used to alleviate symptoms. But none of these medications are fully identified as being effective, and it appears that it will take time before the national government certifies any of these methods.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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