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A man wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus outbreak carries a kitten on his rucksack in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: AFP

Coronavirus: Singapore start-up thinks cat leukaemia drug could be Covid-19 cure

  • The drug, known as Retromad1, has proven effective in treating feline infectious peritonitis virus, which is deadly to cats
  • It was designed to inhibit an enzyme which dengue, Ebola, HIV and coronaviruses use to infect their host
As the race to find effective cures for the novel coronavirus heats up, a biomedical start-up based in Singapore and Malaysia believes it could have the answer – an antiviral drug which has successfully treated coronaviruses and leukaemia in cats. 

The drug, known as Retromad1, has proven effective in treating the feline leukaemia virus and the feline infectious peritonitis virus, both of which are deadly to cats. 

The latter virus is also known as FeCoV, as it is a coronavirus in the same family as the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease in humans.

Retromad1 is being used by some veterinary clinics in Singapore, said Dr Ng Cher Yew, CEO of Biovalence Technologies, which developed the drug.

An electron microscope image showing the coronavirus at the US National Institutes of Health. Photo: AP

The drug was originally invented to treat herpes in humans, though it has not been officially tested for human use. Biovalence is looking to test how the drug affects the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. 

It generally takes years before a drug can be fully trialled and clinically approved for use in humans but medical research on the new coronavirus has been coming out at a rapid pace in the light of the ongoing pandemic.

Singapore’s health authorities are currently using lopinavir-ritonavir – usually used as a treatment for HIV and Aids – and have reported successes.

Several countries are also using remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by United States-based Gilead Sciences.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, second left, shake hands with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. Photo: AFP

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said last month that “there are significant efforts looking into developing a treatment and protocol” to help patients recover.

There have been 243 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Singapore, with no deaths so far. Out of the 243, 109 cases have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

When asked why Biovalence believes its drug is able to treat Covid-19, a spokesman said several scientific papers had revealed that a specific mutation of the new coronavirus bears similarity to how dengue, Ebola and HIV infect their host through an enzyme known as the Furin protease.

The less infectious severe acute respiratory syndrome virus that killed 774 people worldwide in 2003 had no such feature, scientists have found.

“Furin protease is found in all mammalian cells and is known to open the door that allows viruses which have the activator to enter and infect,” said the company spokesman. 

Retromad1 was designed to inhibit the Furin protease, he said. Compared with drugs like remdesivir, which is administered into the veins and thus require hospital care, Retromad1 is taken orally. 

When other scientists discovered the Furin link a few months ago, Biovalence began exploring whether their drug could be used as a treatment for those infected with Covid-19. It is not a vaccine, however, so cannot be used on healthy individuals to prevent them from getting infected.

Testing may also be hampered by Malaysia’s partial lockdown, which begins on Wednesday, as the company’s laboratories are based in the country.

The big questions over Malaysia’s coronavirus partial lockdown

The other challenge they face is the availability of testing. Supplies of laboratory-cultured coronavirus are few and far between, even after China freely shared the genome sequence of the virus in January. 

While Biovalence is looking at getting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, it hopes to be able to fast track the testing process in Singapore too, said the spokesman.

“The major shareholders of Biovalence are Singaporeans and want to put Singapore on the world map for having discovered a cure for Covid-19. Why spend money on a foreign drug when you have a Singapore-made novel drug?” he said.

Read the original story at Today Online