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Numerous drug companies have joined the fight against Covid-19, but just as some may find vaccines or therapeutics that work on the disease, it is inevitable that others will encounter failure. One example of the latter came Wednesday as scientists conducting an in vitro study at Johnson & Johnson found that an HIV drug already in clinical development for Covid-19 failed to show activity against the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2.

In a preprint study – meaning one that has not undergone peer review – posted to, researchers at the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based drugmaker found that when they tested the drug, Prezista (darunavir), in a cell culture against Covid-19 virus that had been isolated from a patient, it displayed no antiviral activity when tested at concentrations considered clinically relevant. By contrast, when they tested another drug in clinical development, Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, on a control sample, that drug showed “potent” activity. As such, they concluded, the data do not support use of the drug to treat Covid-19.

A J&J spokesperson pointed to a public statement by the company about the lack of evidence for the drug as a Covid-19 treatment.

In addition to the branded version of Prezista marketed by J&J, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries also markets the drug as a generic. The active ingredient is also included in Prezcobix, a fixed-dose combination of Prezista and Gilead’s Tybost (cobicistat).

The findings are significant because Prezcobix is already being tried on patients with Covid-19. A Phase III trial of 30 patients at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center in China is comparing Prezcobix on top of conventional treatments against conventional treatments alone. The study was posted on in early February and, as of the last update, on March 4, was listed as still recruiting participants. The Chinese Clinical Trial Register lists another study, at Wuhan University’s Zhongnan Hospital, randomizing 100 patients to receive Prezcobix, AbbVie’s Kaletra (lopinavir, ritonavir) or conventional treatment.

The disappointing in vitro findings for the drug follow by less than three weeks the announcement that a Chinese clinical trial of Kaletra had shown the drug did no better than standard-of-care treatments against Covid-19.

Still, numerous other drugs are in development as potential therapies for Covid-19. Remdesivir, the Gilead drug against which Prezista was tested at J&J, is in two Phase III clinical trials run by the company itself, while a Chinese study is expected to report data this month. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi are testing Kevzara (sarilumab), while Moderna is testing a vaccine, mRNA-1273.

Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images

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