France widens Covid-19 drug tests amid vaccine search

Plaquenil - a drug containing the molecule hydroxychloroquine and normally used as an anti-malarial - is manufactured by French lab Sanofi

The French government has authorised more trials of a drug that could help heal Covid-19, as early tests in France were deemed “promising”, and research continues worldwide into a possible vaccination.

French health minister Olivier Véran confirmed that more widespread tests on the effectiveness of the drug chloroquine would now go ahead, after successful early tests by renowned infectious diseases researcher Professor Didier Raoult.

Professor Raoult is based at the infectious diseases institute l'Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire (IHU) Méditerranée Infection in Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur), and had been tasked by the government to look into drugs that could be effective against Covid-19.

Read more: French researcher posts successful Covid-19 drug trial

In a video summarising the tests, Professor Raoult said that the first Covid-19 patients he had treated with the drug chloroquine had seen a rapid and effective speeding up of their healing process, and a sharp decrease in the amount of time they remained contagious.

The treatment was offered to 24 patients, who were among the first to become infected in the south east of France, and who had voluntarily admitted themselves to hospital for the process.

Patients were given 600mcg per day for 10 days and closely monitored.

Professor Raoult said: “We were able to ascertain that patients who had not received Plaquenil (the drug containing hydroxychloroquine) were still contagious after six days, but of those that had received Plaquenil, after six days, only 25% were still contagious.”

Chloroquine is normally used mainly to prevent and treat malaria, and also to treat auto-immune conditions such as Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

In France, it is marketed under the brand name Plaquenil, manufactured by lab Sanofi; and is also sold under the anti-malaria brand Nivaquine.

Sanofi has already said it could offer “millions of doses” that could treat 300,000 people if necessary.

Read more: French lab offers ‘millions of doses’ of Covid-19 drug

The new trials will now attempt to test the drug more widely across France, independently replicate Professor Raoult’s results, and ensure the findings are scientifically robust enough, before any possible decision might be made to roll any treatment or vaccine out to the wider public.

Mr Véran explained that he had fast-tracked authorisation for the new trials, and that they would be conducted by teams independent of Professor Raoult.

Mr Véran said: “I am aware of the results [by Professor Raoult] and I have now authorised a larger study by other teams to be started as soon as possible, on a larger number of patients.”

He added: “[I hope] to add to the interesting results [by Professor Raoult, but] it is absolutely fundamental that we base all public health decisions on validated scientific data, and this validation process is non-negotiable...If the results are good, we will all be overjoyed.”

Tests have already started in Lille (Nord, Hauts-de-France), Mr Véran said.

Tests in China in February had already suggested that chloroquine was effective against Covid-19, in a test of 100 patients.

So far, no country - nor the World Health Organisation (WHO) - has officially published treatment measures against Covid-19, but in China and South Korea, guidelines already outline the use of chloroquine as an “effective treatment”, a US report published this week has said.

Vaccine research

Researchers worldwide are also continuing to work on developing a vaccine against Covid-19.

The first human clinical trial of a potential vaccine was started this week at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle, Washington, in the US. 

A statement from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) said: “The trial will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 55 years over approximately six weeks. The first participant received the investigational vaccine today.

“The study is evaluating different doses of the experimental vaccine for safety and its ability to induce an immune response in participants. This is the first of multiple steps in the clinical trial process for evaluating the potential benefit of the vaccine.”

The vaccine is called mRNA-1273, and was developed by scientists at the biotechnology company Moderna, Inc., based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. 

Director Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said: “Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2 [which causes Covid-19] is an urgent public health priority. This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal.”

Tests of other potential vaccines are also ongoing, including an antiviral treatment created by Gilead Sciences, which is already being tested in China and across Asia; a DNA vaccine by pharmaceutical company Inovio; and work on antibodies by biotechnology group Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

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