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Global firms race to develop COVID-19 remedy to make up for vaccines with limited efficacy

This image provided by Bonac Corp. shows President Hirotake Hayashi, rear, and a researcher studying nucleic acid medicine as part of an attempt to develop new medicine for the coronavirus.

TOKYO -- The development of medicine to treat COVID-19 has been accelerating across the globe, gathering expectations as a potential "game changer" as coronavirus vaccines are not completely effective in preventing infections.

    Not only major pharmaceutical firms, but also venture companies have joined the race and are competing to take the lead to develop a sovereign remedy.

    "Vaccines do no prevent infections 100%. It's important that there's an oral drug that can be taken safely before creating strong immunity over a long period of time with vaccines," said Isao Teshirogi, president of Osaka-based pharmaceutical giant Shionogi & Co. during a May 11 results briefing session. He presented the idea to develop new medication that has the effect to prevent the proliferation of the coronavirus and can be taken easily at home or at accommodation facilities for recuperation. Teshirogi intends to start clinical trials to examine the safety and efficacy of the medicine by the end of September this year.

    Although there are great expectations surrounding vaccines, their effectiveness to prevent infections is incomplete. At the Seychelles, an island country in the Indian Ocean, infections surged suddenly even though 60% of its population had received vaccines. Therefore, the development of specialized medicine to treat the coronavirus has been anticipated, but currently, existing drugs such as remdesivir, which is sold under the name Veklury and was developed for the treatment of Ebola, has been used instead. However, as such existing medicine requires a greater intake than its original use, there are high risks of side effects, and patients must be hospitalized as the drug is administered by an IV drip, among a host of other issues.

    U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. is one step ahead of its rivals in the development of coronavirus medication. Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, told CNBC during an interview in late April that if approved, an oral drug to treat the coronavirus will be available across the United States by the end of this year. The company started clinical trials of the drug in March. It is anticipated that it will be able to prevent COVID-19 symptoms from growing severe by obstructing the functions of enzymes that are necessary for viruses to multiply within the body.

    The United Kingdom has also shown progress. During an April 20 press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the government is "now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn." The government envisions the "promising new medicines" -- which are tablets -- to be used not only by COVID-19 patients themselves, but also people who live with those with the virus to prevent getting infected.

    Venture companies have also been eager to develop a remedy. They have the advantage of utilizing cutting-edge technology of universities, as well as making decisions swiftly.

    PeptiDream Inc., a drug discovery company based in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, which originated from the University of Tokyo, is developing specialty peptide, or compounds that obstruct the coronavirus' entry into cells. The venture began to consider the development in late February 2020, and set about the development in March that year. It established a joint venture with four other companies, including Fujitsu Ltd., in October last year. Clinical tests will start as early as the end of this year.

    Keiichi Masuya, president of joint venture PeptiAID Inc., said, "We are working with the earnest wish to deliver treatment medicine to the public as quickly as possible."

    Oncolys BioPharma Inc., based in Tokyo's Minato Ward, has also engaged in developing oral drugs for patients with mild symptoms in order to prevent the proliferation of the virus, together with Kagoshima University and other institutions. It aims to start clinical trials using human subjects in 2022. President Yasuo Urata said, "In order to live at ease without masks, a medicine that can be used during the early stages of infection is necessary."

    Bonac Corp., based in the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Kurume, has original expertise in nucleic acid medicine which serves as its strong point. The nucleic acid binds to the genes of viruses that invade into cells, and disintegrates them, thereby preventing the proliferation of the virus.

    As the area that is not so susceptible to genetic mutation is the target, the technology can be expected to prove effective for new coronavirus variants as well. Bonac has already succeeded in narrowing down candidate drugs. It has moved forward with joint development with Nagasaki University, the Fukuoka Prefectural Government, and other bodies, and plans to start clinical trials with human subjects in fiscal 2022.

    For venture companies, finances are a challenge. In April 2021, Bonac received approval for loans of 5 billion yen (about $45.5 million) over 3 1/2 years from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. If it succeeds in its development, it will return the full amount, while if it fails, it will return 10%. However, the condition for the loan is to either put up collateral for the full amount, or obtain a loan guarantee from a bank.

    President Hirotake Hayashi said, "If a system of subsidies from governmental bodies can be established, then I believe further progress will be made for development," and raised the importance of receiving financial assistance to develop new drugs to treat the coronavirus.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Nakagawa and Yuki Ogawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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