The Current

As coronavirus spread speeds up, Montreal researchers will trial an anti-viral treatment for COVID-19 in China

The broad spectrum anti-viral medicine known as quercetin has already proven successful at treating Ebola and Zika viruses. Dr. Michal Chrétien says results about its effectiveness on COVID-19 could come within 60 days of a clinical trial starting.

Quercetin has already proven successful at treating Ebola and Zika viruses

Majambu Mbikay, left, and Michel Chrétien, right, began studying the effectiveness of quercetin as an anti-viral after the 2003 SARS outbreak. They believe it could prove effective against COVID-19. (Susan McKenzie/CBC)
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Update March 13, 2020: The World Health Organization labelled the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic Wednesday. As of midday Friday, there were 180 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Canada.

Original story runs below


Researchers in Québec are hopeful that a drug derived from plants could be the key to curing infections caused by the novel coronavirus.

The broad spectrum anti-viral medicine known as quercetin has already proven successful at treating Ebola and Zika viruses, says Dr. Michel Chrétien, a researcher at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal.

Now, he and co-researcher Majambu Mbikay are awaiting approval to send the drug to China where a clinical trial will test its effectiveness on COVID-19.

"As soon as we receive the OK from China, we are ready to move," Chrétien told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak first began in January, researchers around the world — including in Canada — have been racing to develop a vaccine or treatment for the illness.

While Chrétien cautions against "false hope" saying that quercetin's effectiveness for treating COVID-19 must be proven, Mbikay is optimistic for its potential.

He believes the novel coronavirus may infect people in a way similar to viruses that came before it. That means the drug could have the ability to block the virus from developing in the body.

"We believe that this particular drug interrupts the entry of viruses … so that you can attack several viruses at the same time," said Mbikay.

China trials

Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, researchers have been studying potential treatments for the disease amid worries that it could resurface.

As part of that research, Mbikay says, he and Chrétien stumbled upon quercetin.

As of Friday, COVID-19 has infected people in 49 countries according to the WHO, with more new cases reported in South Korea than China where the disease originated.

WATCH: Michel Chrétien speaks to CBC News Network about quercetin trials

Dr. Michel Chrétien's team at the Clinical Research Insitute of Montreal began clinical trials in China for an antiviral drug developed by Chrétien and his colleagues in the wake of SARS. He gives us an inside look at the lab teams fighting to find a drug that can stop COVID-19 in its tracks. 11:58

The Ontario government announced the province's 7th case of the illness on Friday, bringing the total of confirmed cases in Canada to 14.

Though the WHO has yet to declare the outbreak a pandemic, several countries and institutions are preparing the for possibility. 

Given the illness' rapid spread, Chrétien is hoping trials for the drug can will quickly confirm whether or not quercetin is effective for treating COVID-19 safely.

Based on the trial protocol he has developed with his team, 20 to 30 patients will be given the drug and monitored for reaction. The following week more will be added.

"Then you collect all the data — that clinical data — and then you make evaluation on a weekly basis, if not daily basis, to see how it goes."

He says it's possible that they will have results on quercetin's ability to treat COVID-19 within 60 days of a clinical trial starting.

Chrétien says that they have requested funding from the federal government for a Canadian trial, they are waiting to hear back.

People wearing masks to prevent contracting COVID-19 walk along the Myungdong shopping district in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Low cost

Some patients infected with COVID-19 are currently being treated with a variety of anti-viral drugs, some with a price tag upwards of $1,000 per injection, Mbikay says.

Quercetin, by comparison, would cost just $2 per day.

"It is not expensive. It's a natural product. It's found in nature and purified from plants. Compared to what is available now, and that is being tried in China right now, it doesn't compare in terms of price," Mbikay said.

Chrétien adds that quercetin is an oral drug, which provides benefits over intravenous anti-virals.

As the novel coronavirus begins to infect people in developing countries, Mbikay adds that creating an affordable treatment is key to slowing the outbreak.

"If we can show that these quercetin works, it would be made available to African countries, [other] countries that do not have the infrastructure, nor the means to combat it effectively," he said.


Written by Jason Vermes. Segment produced by Paul MacInnis.

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