As several potential treatments start to show promise against the current pandemic, a candidate from Japan has already convinced Chinese authorities — even as Japanese authorities themselves aren’t yet convinced.
In initial trials, Avigan (or favipiravir), a drug used to treat influenza, shows some promise in addressing the symptoms of COVID-19. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe already told reporters that his government had begun the formal process for designating Avigan as Japan’s standard treatment for Covid-19. It seems to work so well that China has announced its intention to purchase or produce the drug, although Japan’s own researchers aren’t exactly sure yet.
Based on a compound discovered in 1998, Avigan was produced by a subsidiary of Fujifilm. Avigan was used to treat influenza, but there’s a catch: in a subset of the population, the drug may cause fetal deaths or deformities, and can be transferred via semen. As a result, Japanese authorities only recommend taking the drug in a pandemic crisis — pretty much the state we’re at now. Japan was so worried about these side effects that it doesn’t even normally produce the drug.
Already, China and Turkey are using and recommending the drug for treating COVID-19, based on results from small-scale clinical trials in China. It has been reported that Indonesian President Joko Widodo has already imported 5,000 doses of Avigan, and that he was “in the process of ordering two million more.” To make matters even more interesting, Abe announced that 30 countries have expressed interest in buying large stocks of Avigan. The list hasn’t been made public, but it likely includes countries like Germany and the US.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday that Japan will offer each of those nations with the amount of the drug they need, free of charge. But things are not entirely clear about the drug.
Japan is currently undertaking several clinical trials to assess just how good favipiravir is against COVID-19, because according to its own doctors, the results aren’t entirely clear yet. An unnamed individual related to Japan’s Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare has been quoted as saying:
“We’ve given Avigan to 70 to 80 people, but it doesn’t seem to work that well when the virus has already multiplied. The same goes for Kaletra [another promising, yet-unproven drug].”
In other words, Japan will be waiting a bit before rolling out the treatment, but other countries are more than willing to roll the dice and see what happens. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon enough, as the clinical trials in Japan are heavily underway.
Producing new treatments against COVID-19 will take months, and quite possibly well over a year. This is why our best bet for the short-term is repurposing existing drugs. The problem is that finding out whether these drugs actually work and if they are safe