Japan pharma accelerates development of drugs to treat COVID-19

Courtesy of Rohto Pharmaceutical Co.
A Rohto Pharmaceutical Co. employee works on the development of a COVID-19 therapeutic drug in a laboratory.

Domestic pharmaceutical firms have been ramping up the development of drugs to treat COVID-19, in an attempt to make up ground ceded to overseas counterparts who have led the race to rollout vaccines. While vaccination campaigns have been progressing the world over, the development of therapeutic agents to treat the multitude of coronavirus symptoms will be an essential next step in order to return to pre-pandemic routines.

Seeking approval

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has currently authorized only three drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. The three drugs suppress inflammation and multiplication of the virus.

A greater variety of approved medications would give doctors more options for prescribing drugs in line with patients’ symptoms and possible side effects, which would ostensibly improve the effectiveness of treatment.

In its fiscal 2020 supplementary budget, the government has earmarked ¥7 billion to support clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies for drugs to treat COVID-19.

One drug administered intravenously as an antibody cocktail was among those selected for the clinical trial subsidies. Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. filed for the drug’s approval with the ministry at the end of June.

The antibody cocktail, developed by U.S.-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., has already been approved for emergency use in the United States. Overseas clinical trials have reportedly found the treatment to be effective in reducing the risk of hospitalization and death by about 70%.

Chugai has also been conducting clinical trials for other drugs that can be used to treat a range of virus symptoms. The company said it plans to seek approval for their rheumatoid arthritis drug, Actemra, by the end of this year as a COVID-19 treatment.

Reduction of viral load

A number of manufacturers have started to develop new drugs, although they have yet to reach the clinical trial stage.

Shionogi & Co., Ltd. has been focusing its efforts on commercializing a drug that can reduce the amount of virus in the body.

“We hope to start clinical trials in the near future,” said Ryuichi Kiyama, corporate officer and senior vice president of the firm’s Pharmaceutical Research Division. “Our goal is to make a drug that can eradicate the virus in a matter of days, just like flu medication.”

Human Life Cord Japan Inc., an affiliate of Nihon Trim Co., aims to commercialize drugs that draw on regenerative medicine.

Using umbilical cord stem cells, the company has been developing a drug that suppresses inflammation and helps repair lung tissue, with the aim of deploying the drug to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is often seen in critically ill patients.

“By reducing the number of seriously ill, we can help solve the hospital bed shortage,” said Human Life Cord President Masamitsu Harata.

High hurdles

Although drug development has gathered speed, facilitated by gene sequencing and a better understanding of the virus, the task of putting therapeutic agents to practical use is not easy.

Ono Pharmaceutical Co. gave up on its attempts to convert its chronic pancreatitis treatment drug, Foipan, into a COVID-19 treatment agent. The drug was the subject of a clinical trial underwritten by the health ministry, but the trial did not yield the expected results.

Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. pulled the plug on development of a blood-based product that it had been working on jointly with pharmaceutical companies in the United States and South Korea. Daiichi Sankyo Co. also abandoned development of a medication that could be inhaled.

Kiyama said Japanese pharma has set its sights on “making COVID-19 treatments available faster than anyone else.” But overseas competitors who were faster to develop vaccines have also been throwing their hat into the therapeutic drug ring.

For example, Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc. and Novartis AG have all been racing to commercialize antiviral drugs for patients in the early stages of coronavirus infection.

And as some observers cautioned, the Japanese pharmaceutical industry’s competitiveness on the international stage may hinge to a large extent whether or not the development of therapeutic drugs is a success.