Q&A with University of Alberta professor whose lab uncovered how an oral drug attacks the COVID-19 virus


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A University of Alberta virology lab has revealed how an existing oral drug could work to treat COVID-19 before its symptoms become severe.

Matthias Götte is the professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Alberta and a member of the university’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. The research he’s involved in has revealed how the oral antiviral drug Molnupiravir works to attack the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Molnupiravir was originally developed as a treatment for Hepatitis C at Emory University in Atlanta in Georgia, but was shelved due to possible side effects associated with long-term use. 

We asked Gotte about his lab’s research into Molnupiravir.

How long have you been studying Molnupiravir?

“We started to study this for about three months. We have a little history in the lab. We studied Remdesivir, which is an antiviral agent that was tested and went through clinical trials last year and was approved for the treatment … and the problem with this and with other antiviral treatment is that you have to give it intravenously, so it’s really limited to a certain population. What is urgently needed is an oral antiviral that you can give early in the disease before the patients get very sick, and that’s what Molnupiravir is.”

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After the drug was shelved as a treatment for hepatitis, what happened?

“Hepatitis is completely different from acute viral infections like influenza or SARS-CoV-2, so Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia modified the compound, made it more bioavailable and developed it as an influenza drug. Then came SARS-CoV-2 and they tested it on that and the results were quite similar. It seems as if this drug causes both viruses to make too many mistakes that it basically cannot survive.”

What does Molnupiravir do?

“What was known before we started to work on this was, in the presence of the drug, you can see that the virus makes a lot of mistakes and more than normal, so it forces the virus to make so many mistakes that it can’t handle them anymore, and it cannot survive. So what we have shown and was the missing piece is that the drug targets the engine of the virus and mixes up the natural building blocks, so the virus generates sloppy copies of its own genome, so they are useless.”

So it’s kind of like back in the old days when you’d make a copy of a copy of a tape, the quality isn’t that good?

“Exactly, the quality goes down and down and down. That’s a good analogy actually.”

How can this help patients who have COVID-19?

“I think an oral antiviral is really something that is missing in our toolbox to treat or to deal with COVID-19. We have vaccines and that is fantastic. We also have some medication that if you end up in the hospital, it can help a little bit. So what we need is something that immediately after you’re diagnosed you may have symptoms, but it’s not severe, then you have to take this drug immediately.”

Right now Molnupiravir is in Phase 3 human clinical trials and data from those trials is expected to come out around summertime. 

The Phase 2 trial results showed that the drug eliminated the infectivity of the virus after five days of treatment in newly diagnosed patients.

The drug is also under consideration for emergency use in India to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections.