Exclusive interview with Chinese scientist leading COVID-19 medicine research: Government approval coming soon
By Zhou Jiaxin
With the world still in the grip of COVID-19, Chinese scientists are accelerating the development of medicines to deal with the deadly virus. We at CGTN sat down with Professor Zhang Linqi, the leader of a research team at Tsinghua University, to understand if the so-called "cocktail therapy" his research team developed could be a huge game-changer in the fight against the coronavirus.
Professor Zhang has devoted 30 years to studying HIV-1 pathogenesis and vaccine development, and recently expanded his research into emerging and re-emerging human viral pathogens such as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), SARS-CoV-1, and SARS-CoV-2.
The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
CGTN: Your research team has led the so-called cocktail therapy that is likely to reduce hospitalization and death in COVID-19 patients. How did you proceed with medical research?
Zhang: At the beginning of the outbreak, we isolated hundreds of antibodies from patients who had recovered from COVID-19. In a joint-effort with the Third People's Hospital of Shenzhen and Brii Biosciences, we have obtained 206 monoclonal antibodies and selected the best two (Brii-196 and Brii-198) as the cocktail therapy against SARS-CoV-2. They have shown strong antiviral activity and work well together. Multicenter randomized clinical trials have also suggested that this cocktail therapy could reduce hospitalizations and mortality by 78 percent.
CGTN: Your team applied for authorization for its use from China's National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) in October. How optimistic are you about obtaining approval?
Zhang: During the pandemic, NMPA's Center for Drug Evaluation initiated a special rolling submission channel, which expedites the review and approvals process of the latest and most promising medical breakthroughs such as the cocktail therapy we developed. The clinical team have conducted very effective clinical trials at home and abroad in strict accordance with international standards. And the data regarding the reduction of hospitalizations and deaths was generated from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In fact, while being reviewed by Chinese regulators, our antibody drugs have already played a huge role in treatment for those suffering from COVID-19. They were used in emergency and compassionate situations in a dozen provinces and autonomous regions that were experiencing outbreaks. The impressive safety and efficacy profile from clinical trials has supported the "emergency use" status, granted by the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology. So, we are very confident of obtaining full approval soon.
CGTN: There are at least seven countries researching cocktail therapy treatment for COVID-19. How is your team's treatment different from theirs?
Zhang: Our medicine treatment has competitive advantages. First, it is very potent in inhibiting the virus from infecting cells. The cocktail antibodies can target different sites of the virus, even it is mutated. They are broadly neutralizing antibodies. We have also modified the antibodies to extend their half-lives. After one shot, the cocktail can exist in the human body for about nine to 12 months. Not only the cocktail antibodies demonstrate therapeutic efficacy in current clinical trials, but also can be used for prevention measures. So, it has great advantages over "small molecule" drugs.
CGTN: China is now in the midst of its booster shots campaign, how will your COVID-19 treatment complement efforts or even be a game-changer in preventing future outbreaks? Do you think the authorization for medicines could be easier than vaccines?
Zhang: Antibody drugs and vaccines are complementing each other. China's vaccines have good efficacy, but it is not a hundred percent effective. So, for those breakthrough infection cases, this treatment would be particularly useful. In this regard, these antibody drugs, specifically highly-effective ones, can make a significant impact in the fight against the pandemic. In terms of approval for these drugs and vaccines, the process has always been very strict. No shortcuts! As far as we're concerned, our cocktail medicine has been leading the way in both clinical progress and efficacy. So, we have high expectations that it will soon be approved by the regulatory authorities here in China and abroad.