China okays arthritis drug to treat coronavirus infections

China is hoping to put a decade-old drug to use as it grapples with an outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

According to Reuters, China has approved the use of the anti-inflammation drug Actemra, manufactured by Swiss drug maker Roche, to deal with complications among those infected with the novel coronavirus.

The disease has notably killed nearly 3,000 in China.

Actemra, also known as tocilizumab, was first approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for rheumatoid arthritis in 2010.

The drug inhibits high Interleukin 6 (IL-6), a multi-functional cytokine (protein) produced by cells which can be elevated with inflammation, infection, autoimmune disorders, etc.

It has been used to treat cytokine storms in cancer patients during cell therapies from Novartis and Gilead Sciences.

To understand how the drug can help coronavirus patients, we need to understand how the virus affects the body.

The novel coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2—attacks a host’s lungs where it kills the cilia cells.

Cilia cells are hair-like projections along the airway which help clear microbes and debris from the lungs.

Debris from dead cilia cells then fills the airway, causing pneumonia and triggering an immune response.

Although the immune system’s job is to target only the infected lung tissue, sometimes it goes into overdrive and starts killing healthy tissue.

This may lead to worsened pneumonia, respiratory failure, or permanent lung damage.

It could also trigger cytokine storms, which may spill over to the circulatory system with inflammation, causing multiple organ failure.

The drug Actemra could stop these cytokine storms.

Researchers in China are testing Actemra in a clinical trial, including 188 coronavirus patients. It concludes on May 10.

Reportedly, Roche said a third party has initiated the trial independently to explore the drug’s efficacy and safety in coronavirus patients with cytokine storms.

However, Roche is yet to get a nod from China’s National Medical Product Administration to sell Actemra for coronavirus cases.

The novel coronavirus outbreak emerged in China’s Wuhan city in mid-December.

Since then, the disease has killed 2,902 in mainland China and sickened over 80,000.

Globally, the disease has killed 3,286 and infected almost a lakh people. This includes 28 positive cases detected in India.

The disease has managed to spread to around 90 countries including the United States, France, Japan, UAE, Iceland, etc.

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