On Friday, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) approved Indian pharma company Zydus Cadila's anti-viral drug, Virafin, for emergency use to treat 'moderate Covid-19 cases' Virafin is the trade name used by Zydus Cadila for Pegylated Interferon alpha-2b. For the uninitiated, interferons are signalling proteins found in our bodies that act as immunological agents.
Zydus Cadila has outlined that this medicine can be given when there is a moderate degree of infection. When the viral load is between moderate and high, the need for oxygen is rapid. So, by administering this medicine, the viral load will decrease, and the need for oxygen will also reduce.
The pharma company claims that in their phase three trial, most of those suffering from moderate effects of Covid-19 infection reported zero viral load within the seven days of administering a single dose of this drug. Therefore, the inference that has been drawn is that this drug can reduce the viral load faster. On that basis, it has received an emergency use authorisation from the DCGI.
This drug is already being used for the treatment of hepatitis C, which is another virus condition. However, in 2004, when the SARS outbreak took place (which is the first variant of coronavirus), studies conducted at the time demonstrated that this drug is also effective in the treatment of SARS. Therefore, now it has been repurposed to treat Covid-19.
Since it has received an emergency authorisation, this medicine will be available for restricted use and can be given only when prescribed by a doctor and administered under supervised conditions. Therefore, this medicine should not be given to Covid-19 patients over the counter without any prescription to avoid misuse or ill-use.
Any drug which is meant for an anti-viral purpose has its side effect. Therefore, there are some side effects of this medicine as well. Some people may develop influenza-like symptoms, and in some cases, there can be risks of altering blood composition and causing neuro-psychiatric disturbances. Therefore, it is crucial to only take this after consulting a physician.
So far, several medicines have been made available to alleviate the effects of covid-19. For example, Remdesivir is being given to COVID-19 patients, and it is one of the most popular drugs. There is also Fabiflu. These medicines are all anti-viral, and COVID-19 patients had shown positive improvements when these drugs were administered. However, so far, we do not know of any medicine, which is an absolute cure for COVID.
Therefore, given the current scenario and Zydus Cadila's claim, we are hopeful that Virafin will reduce the severity of the disease and perhaps be instrumental in reducing the mortality rates. As a medical scientist, I feel this drug has great potential and will be able to offer support to doctors in their fight against COVID-19.
Dr. Arun Sharma is the director of NIIRNCD (ICMR), Jodhpur.