April 6 (UPI) -- Researchers may have identified a new drug that can reduce the lung damage associated with COVID-19.
The antiviral EIDD-2801 was effective in mice at preventing severe pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus, which has likely been a key driver of serious disease and death in some of those infected, according to findings published Monday in the journal Science Translation Medicine.
The drug has now finished testing in mice and will begin human clinical trials later this spring, the authors said.
"This new drug not only has high potential for treating COVID-19 patients, but also appears effective for the treatment of other serious coronavirus infections," co-author Ralph Baric, professor of epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, said in statement.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 1.3 million people worldwide have been sickened by COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. More than 70,000 people have died following infection so far, and there is no proven cure.
EIDD-2801 is one of several possible treatments for the virus currently under investigation, along with the drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, which are used to treat malaria and lupus, and transfusions of blood plasma donated by people who have recovered.
The new drug shows potential as "treatment or prevention" of severe disease, assuming "it works in humans," Mark Denison, a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who worked with Baric, told UPI.
Baric, Denison and their colleagues -- including George Painter, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory and director of the Emory Institute for Drug Development, where EIDD-2801 was discovered -- tested the drug on cultured human lung cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. Additionally, they tested in on mice infected with the related coronaviruses SARS-CoV, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, and MERS-CoV, or Middle Eastern respiratory syndrom.
When used as a prophylactic, EIDD-2801 prevented severe lung injury in infected mice, the researchers said.
In addition, when administered as a treatment 12 or 24 hours following infection, EIDD-2801 reduced the degree of lung damage and weight loss in mice. This window of opportunity is expected to be longer in humans, because the period between COVID-19 disease onset and death is generally extended -- up to two weeks or more -- in humans compared to mice.
The drug is an orally available antiviral that can be taken as a pill and properly absorbed to travel to the lungs.
Compared with other potential COVID-19 treatments that must be administered intravenously, EIDD-2801 offers a potential advantage for treating less-ill patients or for prophylaxis -- for example, in a nursing homes where many people have been exposed but are not yet sick.
"We are amazed at the ability of EIDD-1931 and -2801 to inhibit all tested coronaviruses and the potential for oral treatment of COVID-19," said Andrea Pruijssers, the lead antiviral scientist in Denison's lab.
If clinical trials in humans are successful, the drug could not only be used to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but could also be used to control future outbreaks of emerging coronaviruses.
"With three novel human coronaviruses emerging in the past 20 years, it is likely that we will continue to see more," said co-author Timothy Sheahan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. "EIDD-2801 holds promise to not only treat COVID-19 patients today, but to treat new coronaviruses that may emerge in the future."