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A new £1.6m collaborative project has been launched to rapidly identify new treatments for COVID-19.

The project, led by Queen’s University Belfast and funded by the Medical Research Council, will bring together experts from Queen’s, the University of Liverpool and the University of Oxford. The team will use a data-driven approach to identify novel drug combinations that are effective in tackling SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.

Despite the development of vaccines and drugs at an unprecedented pace to prevent and treat infection, there remains a huge gap in the development of antiviral therapies. Antiviral drugs are used specifically to treat viral infections by killing or preventing the growth of viruses.

The research project will initially screen 138 drugs with known antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2 to assess and identify combinations that enhance their antiviral potential. The most effective combinations will be presented to national organisations including the UK Antiviral Task Force and UK-CTAP, evidencing the need to bring the treatments forward to clinical trials phase.

Professor Miles Carroll, Principal Investigator from Oxford University, said: ‘We are excited to join this anti-viral consortium with the ultimate aim of providing new drug candidates for the Antiviral Task Force. The fact that we are focussing on those drugs that are already licensed for human use, means those with significant anti-SARS-CoV-2 activity can be rapidly assessed in humans where they could have a significant impact on the disease burden in the community.’

Principal Investigator, Professor Ultan Power from Queen’s University, said: ‘Identifying and developing antiviral drugs has traditionally been a very long and arduous process and has been successful for only a small number of human viruses, including influenza, HIV, HCV, herpes viruses, and Ebola virus. More recently, drugs developed to treat one type of virus, like remdesivir for Ebola, were successfully repurposed to treat SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, dramatically reducing development time to clinical use. The rapid development of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies has also had a significant impact on COVID-19 disease progression. However, the recent advent of the Omicron variant, which is resistant to most of these antibodies, provides clear evidence of the ongoing urgent need to develop new drugs to treat COVID-19. The urgency of the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic requires rapid identification of new and safe drugs given early in the disease process to prevent hospitalisation.

‘Successful repurposing of existing drugs, either alone or in combination will greatly accelerate this process. Therefore, our project will seek to repurpose drugs that are already in clinical trials or approved for use and which demonstrated some antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2.

‘Our goal is to identify repurposed drug combinations that are safe and effective against SARS-CoV-2 and suitable for use by the public.

‘There are multiple benefits with discovering new treatments in this way. They have been through all the necessary checks so we know they are safe and readily available, they can be self-administered and used at home, helping to reduce the burden on the healthcare system.’

The researchers will also evaluate the likelihood of the drug combinations to evoke drug-resistant mutants, to ensure the emergence of drug-resistant variants is minimised.

Further to the 138 drugs being screened, the research team will use the robust drug screening platform on a further 4,000 drugs to identify back-up drug combinations to ensure a pipeline of antiviral drugs against SARS-Cov-2 for the future.

Professor Power added: 'Using this data-driven approach across such a huge number of potential anti-viral treatments, I am confident that we have the right team in place to find safe and effective combination therapies to treat Covid-19 as well as putting in place the right processes to quickly identify treatments to the fast-evolving variants that we’ve seen arise.'

Professor James Stewart, from Liverpool University, said: ‘We are enthusiastic about bringing our expertise and pre-clinical in vivo development platform to work with this consortium bringing through promising new anti-SARS-CoV-2 drugs. These have the potential of making an impact on disease burden worldwide.’