The fastest way to find a new drug for COVID-19 is to try an old one. With that maxim in mind, Georgia State University virologist Mukesh Kumar ramped up a testing protocol in February just after reports emerged of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, and on April 15, he released his findings about a promising candidate called auranofin.
Auranofin is a compound that contains gold and has been used since 1985 to treat rheumatoid arthritis (although it has been largely replaced by newer drugs). In tests in his high-level biosafety lab, Kumar and his colleagues found auranofin reduced the amount of coronavirus in infected cells by 95 percent just 48 hours after they were treated with one dose.
The drug also dramatically lowered the release of cytokines, proteins that send signals to the body’s immune system, summoning a response to an infection. When cytokines become overactive, COVID-19 patients sometimes suffer from severe lung damage caused by a “cytokine storm.”
The quest to tamp down that inflammation drove interest in hydroxychloroquine, a potential COVID-19 drug touted by President Donald Trump and others that also has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and joint damage.
“We were looking for drugs with a similar property, but derived from natural components so they are not as toxic,” says Kumar, who released his paper as a pre-print, which means it has not yet been vetted by other scientists. He has submitted the paper to the journal Virology.
Kumar plans to begin animal studies to see what dose of auranofin would be most effective and whether it needs to be given early in the disease or if it could work even after the infection is more advanced. He is still looking for other COVID-19 prospects, as well. “I’m sure there must be more drugs that could be effective,” he says. “We just have to test them.”
Because auranofin is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, physicians could use it immediately to treat COVID-19. But Kumar cautions it should only be taken under a physician’s supervision. Auranofin can cause digestive problems, rash, kidney problems, and other rare but serious side effects. (Gold powder is not the same as auranofin.)
Ultimately, drugs may be used in combination to combat COVID-19, he says. “We have to have to have some kind of therapy to completely stop it,” he says. “We will need either effective drugs or an effective vaccine.”