The $95 billion biotech Gilead just announced plans to test a promising potential coronavirus treatment in 1,000 people

People with surgical masks look on at station Tanah Abang, following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, in Jakarta Reuters

The $US95 billion biotech Gilead Sciences is accelerating its effort to test a promising drug to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Gilead announced on Wednesday plans for two late-stage clinical trials. The studies will assess different doses and treatment courses of the experimental antiviral medication remdesivir in about 1,000 patients with COVID-19.

A sense of urgency has been placed on the drug industry to identify and develop vaccines and treatments to halt the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 2,800 people and sickened more than 82,000. Since it originated in China, the virus has spread to at least 40 other countries, encompassing six continents.

The efforts build on ongoing tests of the drug in China and the US. Gilead said these new studies would start enrolling patients in March “across Asian countries, as well as other countries globally with high numbers of diagnosed cases.”

Daniel O'Day Gilead CEO, formerly of Roche
Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day. Ruben Sprich / Reuters

Gilead said it would likely get the first results from some of those earlier studies in April.

The National Institutes of Health’s infectious-disease unit recently started a trial of remdesivir in the US with COVID-19 patients.

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“Gilead’s primary focus is on rapidly determining the safety and efficacy of remdesivir as a potential treatment for COVID-19, and this complementary array of studies helps to give us a more expansive breadth of data globally on the drug’s profile in a short amount of time,” Merdad Parsey, Gilead’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.

The company’s stock jumped 4% in early trading on Thursday. Investors have embraced companies that may benefit financially from the coronavirus outbreak, even as the broader stock market has tumbled over fears that the coronavirus outbreak could slow the global economy. The biotech Moderna has spiked in recent days amid optimisim for its potential coronavirus vaccine.

Michael Yee, an analyst at Jefferies, said that even if remdesivir works to treat coronavirus, the financial benefits to Gilead would likely be modest. The company might not be able to charge a high price for the drug, most people would only use it once for a short-time, and the company might give it away at a low cost for humanitarian reasons in some cases, he said in a research note.

Health officials and experts have emphasised the potential for remdesivir. A single case reported in The New England Journal of Medicine stirred initial excitement about the drug’s promise.

“There is only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy and that’s remdesivir,” Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general of the World Health Organisation, said at a recent press conference, CNN reported.