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These companies are racing to roll out COVID-19 treatments

Posted March 30, 2020 12:20 p.m. EDT

— Big Pharma companies and biotechs are racing to come up with an effective treatment for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

Several high profile companies are working on new experimental vaccines. Drug giant Johnson & Johnson is the latest to announce a promising vaccine candidate, saying on Monday that it plans human testing by September with the hopes of having more than one billion doses of a vaccine available for emergency use by early 2021.

J&J said it was partnering with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to produce the vaccine. Shares of J&J surged nearly 7% on the news Monday.

Many other companies are also working on vaccines, including small biotechs Moderna, Novavax and Inovio as well as Big Pharma firm Pfizer, which is partnering with Germany's BioNTech.

Shares of Moderna, Novavax, Inovio and BioNTech have all soared this year, even as the broader market has plunged due to worries about the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy. (Pfizer is down nearly 20%.)

But making and testing new vaccines may not wind up being the fastest way to treat COVID-19, says Sergey Young, founder of the Longevity Vision Fund -- a firm that invests primarily in smaller private biotechs.

Already developed drugs might work now as the world waits for a vaccine

Some firms are hoping that existing medications for other infectious diseases and immunological disorders can be used to tackle the global pandemic.

"This is the first time in history where companies are trying to repurpose drugs this fast, and that is exciting," Young said. "A vaccine is in the more distant future. We pray that one can come by the autumn."

Young pointed to three drugs in particular that might wind up being effective in treating symptoms of COVID-19. The first -- and the one that has gotten the most attention -- is remdesivir, a drug made by Gilead Sciences that was originally used for Ebola and other highly contagious diseases.

Officials at the World Health Organization have touted remdesivir as having the most potential to effectively treat coronavirus patients. The WHO has begun clinical tests of the drug on patients in Spain and Norway.

"Remdesivir is still an investigational medicine. We are planning for the outcome we all hope for -- that it will prove to be a safe, effective treatment -- and in the meantime we are taking the ethical, responsible approach to determining whether that is the case," said Gilead chairman and CEO Daniel O'Day in an open letter released Saturday.

Longevity Vision Fund's Young added that two other medications could be helpful in treating coronavirus as well: the HIV medication Kaletra, which is produced by AbbVIe and is a combination of the antiviral drugs lopinavir and ritonavir; and Kevzara, and a rheumatoid arthritis treatment made by biotech Regeneron and European drug titan Sanofi. (The reporter of this story owns shares of AbbVie.)

Sanofi is also working on a vaccine with BARDA funding from the US government.

Meanwhile, Chinese health officials have also been testing another rheumatoid arthritis drug -- Roche's Actemra -- on COVID-19 patients.

The hope is that one or more of these existing medications will help alleviate the worst symptoms from the coronavirus, buying more time for companies developing vaccines to come up with a longer term solution to stop the spread of the disease.

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