UNC Lab May Offer Hope For COVID-19 Treatment

Mar 18, 2020

Dr. Timothy Sheahan is a virologist in Dr. Ralph Baric's lab at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Credit UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health / UNC-CH

Labs across the world are scrambling to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. But just as important is a more immediate treatment. The treatment the World Health Organization has classified as the most promising is coming out of a lab at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

It's called Remdesivir. And let's be very clear: it's a long way from being available on the open market.

But Dr. Ralph Baric's lab has a six-year head start developing Remdesivir for treating previous coronaviruses.

Dr. Ralph Baric
Credit UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health

"The lab is really designed to develop drugs against new emerging pathogens, and we focused on coronaviruses," Baric told MSNBC this week. "Not only the emerging coronaviruses like SARS coronavirus, MERS coronavirus and SARS 2, but also contemporary human coronaviruses, and this drug works against all of them. And so it's quite impressive at least in vitro, in animals, and now it's in human testing."

Baric and his 30-person team partnered with Gilead Sciences, Inc. six years ago to test antiviral drugs to curb emerging viral diseases that were then largely overlooked by big pharmaceutical companies.

Fast forward to this spring, and Remdesivir has been fast-tracked into COVID-19 clinical trials in China and elsewhere, as the pandemic has grown.

"If Remdesivir is successful in clinical trial, it could be deployed to perhaps treat severe COVID-19 patients in the hospital," said Dr. Timothy Sheahan, a virologist in the Baric Lab, in a video produced by UNC Research.

If clinical trials and early treatments are successful, it's still a long time before Remdesivir could start being manufactured in large quantities.

"There’s only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy, " said Bruce Aylward, an assistant director general with the World Health Organization. "And that’s Remdesivir."