COVID-19 antiviral drug shown to be effective against variants

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A promising antiviral treatment for those hospitalised with COVID-19 has been shown in laboratory tests to be effective against the Alpha and Beta variants first identified in the UK and South Africa.

Southampton-led research into a new treatment for COVID-19 is set to continue, following new research showing that it has broad-acting antiviral properties and is effective against new variants.

The treatment, developed by the University of Southampton’s spin-out company Synairgen, is delivered as a fine mist of the protein interferon beta breathed deep into the lungs. It is thought to prevent the patient’s condition from getting worse by boosting the lungs’ natural antiviral defences.

Professor Tom Wilkinson is leading an international phase 3 trial of the treatment for those hospitalised with COVID-19, with a new arm of the trial recently started in India.

Highly effective against two variants

New treatments for COVID-19 could potentially be less effective against certain variants, slowing the progress made so far in opening up societies. Scientists at Viroclinics-DDL in the Netherlands therefore conducted laboratory experiments to test Synairgen’s treatment against two new variants.

In cells infected with the Alpha (UK/Kent) or Beta (South African) variants, Synairgen’s interferon beta formulation reduced the amount of virus to undetectable levels. The concentrations used were equivalent to those that could be found in the lungs after treatment.

Continuing international trials

Interferon beta is a protein that occurs naturally in the body with antiviral properties. There is evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 suppresses interferon beta production by cells in the lungs, so this treatment seeks to replace it and so boost the lungs’ immune response.

The treatment is currently being tested in a large scale international phase 3 trial, led by Professor Tom Wilkinson in collaboration with Synairgen. It will involve more than 600 patients in 20 countries.

This follows previous results from smaller scale trials, which indicated that it could prevent patients’ decline, cut admissions to intensive care and improve recovery times. If successful, the researchers hope the treatment could be approved for use later in the summer.

Prof. Sir Stephen Holgate CBE, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton and Co-Founder of Synairgen, said: “Emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 are of great concern as they may negatively impact on the effectiveness of current vaccines and therapeutics.

“These data are not surprising, and confirm the broad-spectrum antiviral activity of SNG001, which has shown activity against a range of respiratory viruses such as RSV, rhinovirus, adenovirus and influenza, and reassuringly confirm its activity against these SARS-CoV-2 variants, which is important in the context of our ongoing Phase III trial in hospitalised patients and the future use of this drug against SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging viral threats.”

Richard Marsden, CEO of Synairgen, added: “As expected, these data confirm that SNG001 is a broad-spectrum antiviral product, now also demonstrating applicability against SARS-CoV-2 variants. The SARS-CoV-2 virus suppresses the production of the essential antiviral protein IFN-beta to evade the host immune system; it is therefore to be expected that when IFN-beta is reintroduced into an infection experiment that the host cells are able to repel the virus.

“Alongside vaccines, our lines of defence for this pandemic and future outbreaks rely in part on access to effective antivirals with broad-spectrum activity against a range of viruses and variants. The current focus on the Indian variant demonstrates how concerned Governments are about the risk that a variant may render the vaccines less effective, and we are pleased to see initiatives being put in place to accelerate and support development of antiviral therapeutics as a backstop for patients who are admitted to hospital. We are pleased to report that we have now started dosing patients at trial sites in India in our Phase III study."

Posted on Thursday 10 June 2021