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The UC Irvine Medical Center announced Monday that it is participating in a clinical trial to test whether the antiviral drug remdesivir can be used to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Irvine hospital is among 19 across the globe enrolled in the National Institutes of Health-sponsored trial, which is one of at least five trials on the drug being funded by the government agency.

Dr. Alpesh Amin, executive director of UCI’s Hospitalist Program, said the medication is part of a family of nucleotide analogues and it “attacks the genetic code of the virus.”

“It kind of seeks it out and destroys it,” Amin said.

Amin, an infectious disease specialist, said he’s optimistic it could work, “but until we collect data and study the data, we won’t know.”

There was some early evidence it was effective when previously used against MERS and SARS, other members of the coronavirus family, Amin said. The drug was originally designed to combat ebola in Africa.

Remdesivir’s maker, Gilead, has suspended access to the drug, saying it was “never intended for use in response to a pandemic” and a new system must be created to meet high demand, the New York Times reported Monday.

There is no known treatment for coronavirus, and a vaccine isn’t expected until next year.

So far, only one of the Irvine hospital’s three COVID-19 patients has been enrolled in the trial — and since it’s a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, it’s unclear whether he’s actually been administered the drug. The other two patients were excluded from the trial due to other medical conditions, which can include kidney disease, liver problems, severe renal insufficiency and pregnancy.

Although the study’s designed as a three-year trial to enroll 440 patients across multiple sites, Amin says there’s a chance the medication could get fast-tracked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after the first 100 patients.

“Given the uniqueness of the pandemic situation that we have, there is a possibility that if the results are very good, some quick decisions could be made,” he said.

Patients are given the drug intravenously for up to 10 days. Side effects so far remain unclear, Amin said.

“We will learn about the side effects as we go through this,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we go through this clinical trial — to understand the efficacy, the effective side of it, but also understand the safety side of it.”

Other California hospitals participating in the trial include UC Davis and UC San Diego.