Potential for treatments for COVID-19? Shifting through the speculation

24th February 2020 by Anne Sakoane

A modern, global PHEIC

The spread of nCoV-2019, officially named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses[i] ) has dominated news headlines around the world since the beginning of 2020. It was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the WHO at the end of January, only 2 months after it was first reported by physicians in Wuhan, China.

Room for speculation

The information about the 2019-nCoV symptoms (usually including a dry cough and fever), related fatal viral diseases (SARS and MERS to name two of the other six human coronaviruses) and treatments in development are released at an extremely fast rate thanks in part to social media and digital communications.

Many readers of this blog will be allied to the life sciences industry or healthcare professions and therefore familiar with the scientific and health-related information behind these reports and better able to sift through the conjecture.

So much speculation has been shared so widely and so quickly, it is often difficult to attribute any particular piece of news or rumour to one source. Initial reports about the 2019-nCoV disease origin, for example, ranged from zoonic (bats or snakes) to man-made.

There is a lot that remains unknown about 2019-nCoV, very likely more than there are scientifically proven facts. What we do know is that there is still no known treatment for any strain of coronavirus; treatment is always symptomatic and supportive.

Potential medical interventions?

In early February 2020, a single case from the United States was documented about an nCoV-2019 patient whose severe pneumonia improved after receiving treatment with an experimental drug developed for Ebola.

Soon thereafter, Chinese media reported they were taking the same experimental treatment, remdesivir, into a large phase III randomised control trial with a planned enrolment of 761 subjects, currently ongoing. The treatment is not yet approved for use in humans.

As news of this experimental treatment's use is being circulated, two large digital innovation companies have recently released their proposals for treatments based purely on digital development algorithms.

Possible digital solutions?

Babylon AI’s report to the Lancet[iii] proposed a treatment based on its own algorithms. Insilico Medicine has also come up with six potential (theoretical) treatments based on its findings[iv].

Both companies have invited researchers and medicinal chemists to provide a practical assessment of their treatments’ feasibilities to treat nCoV-2019.

Although these signal promising digital and in-lab treatment options to explore, mainstream news stories are predominately focused on the virus's spread and the number of deaths or new infections.

medDigital will be keeping an eye on developing stories about promising treatments, including those involving digital innovations.

Check the medDigital website and Twitter feed for future updates!


[i] https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.07.937862v1, accessed 20 February 2020

[ii] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460709/4a_Health_Literacy-Full.pdf, accessed 18 February 2020

[iii] The Lancet, Correspondence, Volume 395, ISSUE 10223, Pe30-e31, February 15, 2020, Baricitinib as potential treatment for 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease, Peter Richardson, Ivan Griffin Catherine Tucker, Dan Smith, Olly Oechsle, Anne Phelan, et al.

[iv] https://www.scmp.com/business/article/3050832/can-ai-speed-cure-coronavirus-hong-kong-start-opens-its-resources-global, accessed 20 February 2020