Anti-viral cat medication may show promise for humans with COVID-19: U of A researchers

While much of the world remains focused on a vaccine for COVID-19, some scientists are hard at work looking for treatments for those who have become ill.

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Alberta, is part of a team looking into the possibility that we could learn a thing or two from cat medications.

Cats can become infected by the coronavirus. For most, it’s mild. But for a small subset, there is a serious illness called feline infectious peritonitis, Schwartz told CBC. 

Because this is an often fatal, and serious illness, research has already been done to develop anti-virals — and those are known to get good results.

Schwartz says one of those anti-vrals shows promise for the treatment of humans.

“One of those drugs we have tested against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the laboratory and have found that it is in fact effective as well,” Schwartz said. 

The anti-viral treatment would need to be adapted for humans.

Dr. Ilan Schwartz with the University of Alberta explains how a drug made to treat a type of coronavirus in cats could one day help treat human COVID-19 patients. 6:51

“One of the challenges is that of course cats are very different, in their body size and shape, and also the way that they take medicine,” Schwartz said.

“The medication was actually designed to be easy to administer to cats, and so it’s injected subcutaneously, and it’s a very small amount of volume that a cat’s body can take. But of course people are much bigger and so a much larger volume would be required.” 

Schwartz said a challenge in that formula is that the vaccine can not be administered in this same way to humans.

“We are still limited in that this particular formulation needs to be injected subcutaneously,” he said. “We can only give so much of the volume subcutaneously.”

Still, with some clinical trials in the future, Schwartz is optimistic.

“We are confident that we will be able to advance this to phase one clinical trials, where we look to see if it is safe for people,” he said. “So it’s exciting to be able to contribute even in a small way to advancing the field.”

As an infectious disease specialist, Schwartz has been involved in numerous studies, including the study of hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat COVID-19, early on in the pandemic — which didn’t pan out.

“That agent was not the one to study, but we know that now and we’ve moved on,” Schwartz said.

“We did learn a lot about how to conduct a clinical trial among outpatients in a pandemic, which of course is not something that any of us had done before, and that involves many different considerations.”

Mid-pandemic research has its own challenges, such as how to both recruit and deliver the medications to people without seeing them face to face, as well as many labs being closed.

“There have certainly been a lot of challenges, it has been a learning process for all of us,” Schwartz said. “But we’re slowly chipping away at getting closer to knowing how best to treat patients with COVID-19.”

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