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China says it found a flu drug that can treat coronavirus

Published Mar 18th, 2020 9:59AM EDT
coronavirus treatment

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  • Japanese flu drug favipiravir is showing promise in treating symptoms of coronavirus infection and shortening the time the virus remains active in an infected person. 
  • Reports out of China suggest the drug is safe and effective, improving the lung condition of patients and helping them rid their bodies of the virus. 
  • Japanese health officials are taking a more measured approach, noting that the drug isn’t as effective in severe cases. 
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The race is on to find a safe and effective treatment to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. New COVID-19 cases are popping up all over the globe, and while the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are the most vulnerable, none of us can afford to take this situation lightly.

Now, a flu medication from Japan may be a good option for curbing the spread of the virus by shortening the time that people remain infected. Doctors in China say the drug, called favipiravir (branded Avigan), is effective in treating coronavirus infections and dramatically shortens the time a person is sick.

As The Guardian reports, news out of Japan suggesting the drug’s effectiveness is based on statements from Zhang Zhang of China’s science and technology ministry. Xinmin told reporters that clinical trials in some of the hardest-hit areas of China, including Wuhan, included 340 patients and produced promising results.

Zhang told reporters that the drug “has a high degree of safety and is clearly effective in treatment.” Test results showed that the drug can help a person recover from a COVID-19 infection in an average of four days, compared with others who took 11 days to produce negative test results after being left untreated.

The Chinese official also noted that the drug appears to improve lung function in those with the virus. X-ray scans showed lung improvements of around 30% in those treated with the drug, compared to those who were left untreated.

This all sounds pretty incredible, but officials in Japan were quick to counter the claims by China and offer a slightly less optimistic view of the drug’s usefulness. The Japanese health officials said that the drug was indeed effective in some cases, but was less useful in patients whose infections had already become severe.

Favipiravir is an approved treatment for the flu but is not approved to treat COVID-19. At this early stage, nothing is officially approved to treat the virus, but if the medication is helpful for even a fraction of individuals who come down with the virus, it could help flatten the curve and reduce the overall impact of the pandemic.

It’s worth noting here that the company that developed the drug, Fujifilm Toyama Chemical, has yet to weigh in on all of this. The firm certainly isn’t jumping to conclusions based on these reports, so it will be interesting to see if favipiravir becomes a weapon for doctors to fight the spread of the virus.