Japan should prepare to quickly get promising drugs to treat COVID-19

To conquer the novel coronavirus, efforts must be made to develop therapeutic drugs in addition to speeding up vaccinations.

Currently, when it comes to treating coronavirus patients, remdesivir, a U.S.-made antiviral drug that had been under development for treatment of a different illness, is being used for people with severe symptoms. Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. has filed for approval from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry of a new coronavirus drug that was developed overseas.

Remdesivir and the new drug require intravenous drip or injection. In contrast, pharmaceutical giants such as Merck & Co. and Pfizer Inc. of the United States and Roche of Switzerland are developing oral medicines to be prescribed in the early stages of infection.

When infections occur, if people could take medicine and get better while symptoms are still mild, the number requiring hospitalization would decrease, which would help reduce strain on the medical care system and lessen other adverse situations.

In the current situation, it is believed that vaccinating 60% to 80% of the population is necessary to bring the coronavirus under control, but that goal will still take some time to reach. Looking ahead, there is still the fear that coronavirus variants will emerge that do not respond to vaccines, making the development of new coronavirus-specific drugs a vital issue.

The U.S. government has announced that it will provide $3.2 billion (about ¥350 billion) to support development of new antiviral drugs. The funds will be allocated to pharmaceutical companies to cover the costs of clinical trials and drug production, with the aim of putting the drugs into practical use by the end of the year.

Japan also should accelerate its efforts to secure therapeutic drugs to keep up with other countries.

Initially, the supply of vaccines fell short of demand, creating a worldwide competition to obtain them. As Japan did not actively provide financial assistance or participate in clinical trials from the development stage, it did not gain priority in receiving vaccines.

Currently, Japan is participating in clinical trials of oral drugs under development overseas. The government has also decided to provide a total of ¥1.2 billion to companies conducting clinical trials of promising new drugs. However, that figure is small compared to that of the United States. It is advisable that it look into expanding the amount.

It is hoped that the government will keep in close communication with pharmaceutical companies from the stage of clinical trials, and when effectiveness is confirmed, it will be able to grant quick approval.

In Japan, Shionogi & Co. and other companies have begun to develop oral coronavirus drugs. Avigan, a drug produced by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co. to treat a new strain of influenza, was submitted for approval as a therapeutic drug for the coronavirus, but its efficacy has not been determined and the screening process continues.

It is important from a crisis management standpoint that the country cultivate the ability to develop domestically produced therapeutic drugs, and not just quickly introduce drugs developed overseas.

The government also needs to focus on fostering the domestic industry through such measures as identifying promising new drug candidates and providing intensive support from the early stages of development.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 1, 2021.