© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Paramedics perform their duties during the outbreak of coronavirus disease in Tver
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will begin administering its first approved antiviral drug for the treatment of coronavirus patients next week, the government sponsor told Reuters, a move it has termed a "game changer" that is a return to normal business should accelerate.
Russian hospitals can begin providing patients with the drug from June 11. Around 60,000 people can be treated every month, the head of the Russian RDIF sovereign wealth fund said in an interview with Reuters.
There is currently no approved vaccine against the highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease, and there is no consensus within the global scientific community about the efficacy of drugs like the antiviral drug modified in Russia.
It is registered under the Avifavir name and is the first potential coronavirus treatment approved by the Russian Ministry of Health. It appeared on Saturday after clinical trials on a government list of approved drugs.
RDIF chief Kirill Dmitriev said that 330 people were involved in clinical trials and that in most cases the drug successfully treated the virus within four days.
The legal proceedings should be completed in about a week, and more are ongoing. The Ministry of Health granted approval for the use of the drug through a special accelerated process, and manufacturing started in March, he added.
"We believe that this is a game changer. It will reduce the burden on the health system, we will put fewer people in critical condition, and 90% of the people will get rid of the virus within 10 days," he said.
"We believe that the drug is the key to resuming full economic activity in Russia. People have to follow the rules of social distance, and of course we need a vaccine, but it is a combination of these three levers."
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With 405,843 cases, Russia has the third highest number of infections worldwide after Brazil and the United States, although with 4,693 official deaths, a much lower death rate was the focus of the debate.
Dmitriev said the new drug, which is available in tablet form, would allow people to spend less time in the hospital and reduce the time they are contagious. The drug has few side effects, but is not suitable for pregnant women.
It is particularly effective in patients with mild or moderate symptoms.
RDIF, which holds a 50% stake in drug maker ChemRar, funded the studies and other work with its partners to the tune of around 300 million rubles ($ 4.3 million), said Dmitriev, who stated that the cost to Russia are much lower due to previous development work in Japan.
Avifavir, commonly known as favipiravir, was first developed in the late 1990s by a Japanese company that was later bought by Fujifilm in the course of healthcare. The drug shorts out the reproductive mechanism of certain RNA viruses such as influenza.
Russian specialists modified the generic to improve its effectiveness in treating COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said Dmitriev, who said Moscow is ready to share the details of these modifications with others within two weeks .
"The drug showed very good results in randomized clinical trials. After four days, 65 percent of the patients did not have the virus," he said.
Japan has tried the same drug known there as Avigan. It has received praise from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and $ 128 million in government funds, but has yet to be approved for use.
Once Russia's own medical needs were met, Dmitriev said it would try to export avifavir. Middle East and Latin America countries have expressed interest in a takeover, he said.