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Drug makers are using AI to help find an answer to the coronavirus

As the search for a vaccine continues, the medical community is moving fast to find drugs that can treat the coronavirus.

Drug makers are using AI to help find an answer to the coronavirus
[Photo: Powerofflowers/iStock]
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Since the novel coronavirus 2019 was first reported as a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, scientific and medical communities have mobilized to find a drug to bring the growing number of cases under control.

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On Thursday, the World Health Organization announced it would host a global research and innovation forum on February 11 and 12. The invite list will include public health officials, research funders, and scientists who are working on coronavirus 2019 vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and other relevant innovations. The goal is to chart out a global research agenda targeting the new coronavirus. To date, roughly 31,000 people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus. Some 600 have died, according to CBS News.

Already, scientists in China have sequenced the genome of the coronavirus, opening the doors for others to come in and develop vaccines and treatments.

Companies that use artificial intelligence to suss out molecules for potential drugs are among those looking for an answer to the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Benevolent AI published a letter in The Lancet, explaining how it found a drug that could be repurposed to fight the coronavirus using artificial intelligence. The most promising choice is a drug called janus kinase inhibitor baricitinib, which is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The drug is believed to prevent the spread of infection as well as inflammation. Benevolent AI suggests the drug could be put into clinical trials among coronavirus patients to see if it could reduce inflammation and stop the progression of the virus.

Insilico Medicine, meanwhile, took a different approach by using artificial intelligence to identify six new molecules that might inhibit the spread of the coronavirus inside the body. On Thursday, the company published its findings in Biorxiv, an open access database for papers that have not been vetted. “We are in an unknown territory—that’s one of the reasons we’re publishing,” says Insilico CEO Alex Zhavoronkov. “We’re releasing those molecules, and we want medicinal chemists who have deep knowledge of medicinal chemistry to look at those molecules and criticize them.”

The goal for both Benevolent AI and Insilico Medicine is to help speed up the search for a solution. Through publishing its findings, Zhavoronkov says, the company can get feedback highlighting potential problems with the molecules, like if one is a known toxin. In the event that one appears promising to medicinal chemists, Zhavoronkov says it can be synthesized in a few weeks, after which testing can begin. He says if testing goes well and they work quickly, human trials could begin in a year—a much faster process than most drugs undergo.

The coronavirus has spread quickly inside of China and has now found its way to nearly 30 countries. Still, the bulk of the virus has affected China. It has a death rate of around 2%, which is so far more deadly than this year’s influenza, but far less deadly than SARS.

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That’s why government officials and drug companies are moving fast to find a solution to the coronavirus, which first became public at the end of 2019. Last week, the Wuhan Institute of Virology China moved to patent the use of remdesivir, an existing drug originally designed to treat Ebola, to treat coronavirus. One day later, China announced clinical trials to test the drug, which is owned by Gilead Sciences, in humans who had contracted the coronavirus. Remdesivir has been used to treat a patient in Washington State with positive results, according to The New England Journal of Medicine. But it is far from certain that the drug works.

Still, the speed with which human trials have begun shows a willingness to eschew the typical red tape in order to find a cure.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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