Georgia State researchers say oral antiviral stopped spread of coronavirus in animal study

An experimental antiviral drug originally developed to treat influenza is being repurposed to try to fight the novel coronavirus.

Professor Richard Plemper led a team at Georgia State University that tested the antiviral molnupiravir in ferrets, whose respiratory tracts, he says, closely match those of humans. 

Plemper says when a COVID-19-infected ferret treated with the antiviral medication was placed into a group of non-infected ferrets the medical appeared to quickly prevent the transmission of the virus.

"What we found was that none of those co-housed animals became infected by the virus," Plemper says. "And, a control group that was not treated by the drug and received a placebo for the vehicle, all of the contact animals of those control group animals became infected within 24 hours."

The antiviral is now in clinical trials in patients hospitalized with COVID-19 complications.

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If it proves effective, Dr. Plemper says, it could offer another tool: this one an easier-to-administer pill.

Most of the FDA-authorized COVID-19 treatments must be infused by IV, making them hard to deliver outside of a medical setting, like a hospital.

"So, this drug can be taken early," Plemper says.  "It does not require hospitalization or any sort of medical assistance for administration, and I think that we could really prevent or reduce the likelihood that a patient advances to severe disease."

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It's still early, Plemper cautions, but he hopes the drug will offer another tool to shut down transmission of this highly contagious virus.

"I believe the potential of this drug to make a meaningful contribution is high," he says.  "Of course, we have to caution these are animal experiments.  We think the ferret model is a relevant model.  But we will ultimately have to wait for the human data."

Molnupiravir is being developed by Ridgeback Biotherapeutics in collaboration with Merck.

Right now, remdesivir is the only FDA-approved antiviral for the treatment of COVID-19. 

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