U of A researchers discover new way remdesivir acts against virus that causes COVID-19

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug already proven to assist with COVID-19 treatment, may have more uses than initially believed, according to University of Alberta researchers.

Antiviral drug acts like a roadblock, stopping or slowing the spread of coronavirus

In this March 2020 photo provided by Gilead Sciences, a vial of the investigational drug remdesivir is visually inspected at a Gilead manufacturing site in the United States. On Wednesday, April 29, 2020, the company says its experimental antiviral drug has proved effective against the new coronavirus in a major U.S. government study that put it to a strict test. (Gilead Sciences/The Associated Press)

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug already proven to assist with COVID-19 treatment, may have more uses than initially believed, according to University of Alberta researchers.

A team of U of A researchers found remdesivir acts in two ways to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in the body. It's generally rare for an antiviral medication to have more than one such mechanism.

This team had previously established the drug inhibits the ability of the virus to self-replicate, similar to the way diesel fuel would slow down a car designed to run on gasoline.

From there, the team has now also found the drug's other mechanism acts like a roadblock, stopping or delaying the virus from spreading in a patient's body.

The findings were published this week in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Clinical trials of remdesivir are ongoing, and Canada has already granted conditional approval to use the drug on patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Emergency or conditional authorization for the drug has been granted in other countries as well, including the United States, Japan, Singapore and Australia.

"Remdesivir speeds up the time of recovery from 15 to 11 days. These randomized clinical trials, this is the gold standard to evaluate antiviral drugs," said Prof. Matthias Gotte, chair of medical microbiology and immunology in the U of A's faculty of medicine and dentistry.

Gotte, interviewed Friday on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM,  is part of a Canada-wide task force searching for effective treatments for COVID-19.

Remdesivir is authorized for use in adults and adolescents age 12 and older, with a body weight of at least 40 kilograms. 

It is administered intravenously and used only in health-care facilities where patients can be closely monitored.

The discovery that remdesivir can fight the virus in two ways helps researchers get a better idea of how other treatments could work against COVID-19.

It also helps doctors know how remdesivir works in combination with other drugs, and allows them to build trust with patients by being better able to explain how the treatment works, Gotte said.

"If the patient is asking, 'How does it work, what you're giving me? You know that? You have an understanding of that?'

"And if you don't have an answer, that is not really reassuring," he said.

"For us, it's important to know exactly how these drugs are working to make them better."

Once a COVID-19 vaccine is found and made available, treatment drugs will still be important as not everyone will be immunized with a vaccine right away.

Treatment will still be needed long before COVID-19 could possibly be eliminated, Gotte said.

Production of remdesivir is currently at a bottleneck, Gotte said, meaning widespread access to the drug won't be coming soon.

But he said other treatments are undergoing clinical trials, and the pace with which researchers are finding potential treatments just months into the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredible.