A vaccine for COVID-19 is likely years away. Yet a drug tested in a lab three weeks ago has been found to stop the virus from spreading from cell to cell.
The stunning announcement comes from a Rochester biotech company called OyaGen, Inc. The company is seeking to fast-track the formula to treat people who become infected.
"A treatment right now is the priority," said Dr. Harold Smith of OyaGen. He added the drug already has FDA approval for another use.
The tests were conducted at the federal government's integrated research facility in Fort Detrick, Md. A drug called Oya 1 had already been proven in lab tests there to be effective against Ebola.
"If it worked for Ebola, is it absolutely unique to Ebola, or would it work on other viruses?" asked Dr. Smith - though he said an actual drug for human consumption was never pursued.
The coronavirus was still new and contained to Wuhan, China when a sample of the live virus was shipped to the government lab for testing with Oya 1. Test samples viewed under a microscope show a clear "before" and "after" that indicates properties that allowed the virus to grow and spread were neutralized.
"The drug was so effective that, even though we got through our dose-testing, we had literally sterilized the culture of the virus, so we knew this was a powerful thing," said Dr. Smith.
Under a different name, Oya-1 was first developed in the 1960s as a treatment for cancer. It was later shelved as ineffective, but not before it received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Safe dosage levels were determined for men, women and children.
"Clinical trials have already been done on this compound and, if safety is a main issue, we feel safety has been addressed years ago," said Dr. Smith.
He said preliminary research indicates a single dose of the medicine stops the progression of COVID-19 for eight days and continues to work at half-strength for another four days.
The question is whether the drug will react to the virus the same way in the body as it has in the lab. When an approved drug is proposed for a new use, the FDA usually requires new clinical trials.
13WHAM News reached out to the FDA, but we have not yet received a response.
OyaGen says the live virus tests were conducted and validated by a third party - the U-S government, and argue that is also a reason the drug should be fast-tracked.
"You've got this compound that's absolutely lethal to the virus, and we know it has a margin of safety in people," said Dr. Smith. "What are we waiting for?"