Avigan, produced by Japanese company Fujifilm, may treat COVID-19. [Image Source: Getty Images]

American Hospitals Test Japanese COVID-19 Drug


As countries and companies undertake the global effort to find a treatment for COVID-19, Japanese corporation Fujifilm and Massachusetts are exploring one potential drug Avigan. The anti-viral drug is one of an estimated 161 vaccines and treatments currently in development.

Three hospitals in Massachusetts — Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School — will begin the first clinical trials approved by the FDA this month. Fifty patients across the three sites will receive either Avigan or the normal care given to COVID-19 patients. The drug previously used to treat Ebola may function by selectively inhibiting the protein responsible for virus replication. Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Company, expected to ramp up production 2.5 times by July, states that the drug is only considered for use when other similar drugs are not effective or insufficiently effective as deemed by the Japanese government. The FDA currently approves active trials of 72 therapeutic agents with plans for 211 development programs across the United States.

The United States and Japan have cooperated for the mutual interest of global health for more than 50 years. The US-Japan Cooperative Medical Sciences Program, established in 1965 and sponsored by US and Japanese agencies, met in February 2020 amidst the COVID-19 crisis to highlight research collaborations on pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment of viral diseases. Signed 25 years ago, the US-Japan Science and Technology Agreement has promoted cooperation in sectors from infectious disease to personalized medicine. At the US-Japan Global Health Dialogue in 2018, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar remarked that the bilateral partnership “provides the world with an outstanding example of the value of sustained global health cooperation.”

During a telephone call, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu advised citizens against international travel and emphasized the need for transparent and accountable practices in the crisis. A team of specialized officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in conjunction with the US Embassy in Japan, Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and Gilead Sciences provided anti-viral drug remdesivir to American and Japanese citizens on February 15. An evacuee from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which clustered 712 COVID-19 cases, was the first to receive the treatment. Prime Minister Abe and President Trump are among global leaders pushing for quick approval of the drug.

The efficacy of the drug also known as favipavir is not yet known. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology noted encouraging results of early clinical trials involving 340 patients in Wuhan and Shenzhen; patients who received the drug recovered in a median of four days. However, another study failed to demonstrate differences between use of Avigan and a similar drug. In contrast to the United States and Japan, the government of South Korea has declined imports of Avigan before the drug’s effects are proven.

Amanda Mei is a research intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 2018.