CHAPEL HILL – An experimental drug created at a subsidiary of Emory University has shown potential to both prevent and treat COVID-19, according to researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The drug, known as EIDD-2801, is being developed by Miami-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Ridgeback is partnered with drug giant Merck in the development process. The drug was invented at Drug Innovations at Emory, a not-for-profit biotechnology company wholly owned by Emory University, according to Ridgeback.

Publishing their work in Nature, scientists at the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health tested how the orally administered experimental drug halts SARS-CoV-2 replication and prevents infection of human cells in a new in vivo [in a living organism] model containing human lung tissue.

They found that the drug was extremely effective at preventing and treating SARS-CoV-2 infection. Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials are ongoing to evaluate EIDD-2801 safety in humans and its effect on viral shedding –  when a virus replicates inside your body and is released into the environment- in COVID-19 patients.

UNC scientists created a solution to problem of mouse models in which coronavirusrs do not replicate by creating a line of mice with human lung tissue that includes all the primary human cells infected when individuals fall ill with COVID-19.

“We found that EIDD-2801 had a remarkable effect on virus replication after only two days of treatment – a dramatic, more than 25,000-fold reduction in the number of infectious particles in human lung tissue when treatment was initiated 24 hours post-exposure,” said senior author J. Victor Garcia, PhD, professor of medicine and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Translational Science. “Virus titers were significantly reduced by 96% when treatment was started 48 hours post-exposure.”

Next, the researchers tested the ability of EIDD-2801 to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection by administering the drug 12 hours prior to SARS-CoV-2 exposure and every 12 hours thereafter.

“Remarkably, we found that EIDD-2801 pre-exposure prophylaxis significantly inhibited SARS-CoV-2 replication – reducing virus titers in the human lung tissues of LoM by over 100,000 fold in two independent experiments,” said co-first author Angela Wahl, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and assistant director of the International Center for the Advancement of Translational Science.

Bats are the presumed source of SARS-CoV-2 and the highly pathogenic human coronaviruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, all of which emerged into the human population within the past two decades.

“We show that LoM allow for the in vivo study of all recently emerged human coronaviruses in a single platform,” said co-first author Lisa Gralinski, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology. “Our model allows researchers to directly compare infection between human coronaviruses and the effectiveness of potential preventative and therapeutic approaches.”

Gralinski, added, “We also show efficient replication of endogenous bat coronaviruses in LoM human lung tissue without the need for prior adaptation of the viruses, confirming that bats harbor viruses that are capable of directly infecting humans without the need for further adaptation.”

“Previously, we demonstrated that EIDD-2801 is also efficacious against SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV infection in vivo and in primary human airway epithelial cultures,” said Ralph Baric, PhD, the William Kenan Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC School of Medicine.  “Overall, these results indicate that EIDD-2801 may not only be efficacious in treating and preventing COVID-19, it could also prove to be highly effective against future coronavirus outbreaks as well.”

(For more about the drug and its clinical trials, check this site.)

Other authors are Claire Johnson, Wenbo Yao, Martina Kovarova, Kenneth Dinnon III, Hongwei Liu, Victoria Madden, Halina Krzystek, Chandrav De, Kristen White, Kendra Gully, Alexandra Schäfer, Tanzila Zaman, Sarah Leist, Paul Grant, Frederic Askin, Edward Browne, Corbin Jones, and Raymond Pickles, all from UNC-Chapel Hill, and Gregory Bluemling, Alexander Kolykhaloy, Michael Natchus, George Painter from Emory University.

This work was supported through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund.

(C) UNC-CH with content contributed by WRAL TechWire