Gilead drug boosts investor hopes for coronavirus treatment

Early impressions from US study show severely ill patients in clinical trial recovering quickly

Wall Street shares are on track for a higher opening on Friday after a report suggested a coronavirus drug developed by Gilead Sciences had shown positive results in a clinical trial, giving investors hope that a treatment could ease the pandemic and open up the global economy.

Early impressions from a study at the University of Chicago Medicine were reported by Stat news, a healthcare industry publication, showing rapid recoveries in almost all of the more than a hundred severely ill patients.

Shares in Gilead, which have risen 17 per cent already this year, jumped a further 14 per cent in after-hours trading.

This helped spur a 3 per cent gain in futures contracts linked to the S&P 500 index on Friday and underpinned a rally in Asian shares despite a historic contraction in China’s economy. The Europe-wide Stoxx 600 index gained 2.5 per cent and London’s FTSE was up 2.4 per cent.


In a video presentation to her academic colleagues, a copy of which was obtained by Stat, Kathleen Mullane, an infectious disease specialist who is leading the trials at the university hospital, said: "The best news is that most of our patients have already been discharged, which is great. We've only had two patients perish."

Not a control group

The trial for the most seriously ill patients does not include a control group, which is given a placebo. So, Dr Mullane said, it was hard to draw too many conclusions. But she said that after starting the drug, many patients saw their fevers reduced quickly, some came off ventilators the next day and most did not need the full course of 10 days.

Stat reported that Dr Mullane confirmed that the leaked footage was real. The University of Chicago said it could not comment on an ongoing trial. Gilead did not respond to a request for comment.

Investors have been anxious for news of potential treatments for Covid-19 in the hope that reducing risks to those who catch it could lead to public officials more quickly opening up economies, which have been put into deep freeze to stop the spread of the virus.

Jim Tierney, the chief investment officer of AllianceBernstein's concentrated US growth strategy, said stocks were moving on the report, given financial markets had been closely tied to the virus's spread and signs of its containment.

“Right now the best solution is time and isolation, but if you actually have a vaccine and a treatment it’s a big thing. It is enough to move the market,” he said. “The world is looking for a solution and doesn’t want to be in the state we’re in.”

Urging caution

In a statement after its shares leapt, Gilead urged caution. “We understand the urgent need for a Covid-19 treatment and the resulting interest in data on our investigational antiviral drug remdesivir. The totality of the data need to be analysed in order to draw any conclusions from the trial,” it said.

“Anecdotal reports, while encouraging, do not provide the statistical power necessary to determine the safety and efficacy profile of remdesivir as a treatment for Covid-19. We expect the data from our phase 3 study in patients with severe Covid-19 infection to be available at the end of this month, and additional data from other studies to become available in May.”

The University of Chicago Medicine added that the partial data were by definition incomplete. “In this case, information from an internal forum for research colleagues concerning work in progress was released without authorisation,” it said. “Drawing any conclusions at this point is premature and scientifically unsound.”

Experts had high hopes for remdesivir because it had shown it was effective in stopping the Ebola virus replicating. Ebola shares a similar mechanism of replication with Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease.

Some Biotech analysts on Wall Street have warned against overreacting to news of a potential treatment.

Jefferies equity analysts said the excitement was “overdone in the near term”, and highlighted that the findings do not come from the later stages of clinical research. “We appreciate that the broader market is in a risk-on and glass-half-full environment and investors are looking for a good story,” the analysts said.

Compassionate use

Last week a small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed 68 per cent of patients, who had been given the drug on a “compassionate use” basis, improved after taking it.

However, the drug has not been approved to treat any disease and scientists are waiting for the results of large trials with control arms for proof that it works and that the benefits outweigh any risks of side effects.

Umer Raffat, a biotech analyst at Evercore, said that he was "cautiously optimistic" about remdesivir but warned it was not a "silver bullet".

He said it was important to note that none of the patients on the Chicago trial had been on invasive ventilation, which tends to be an indication of a more serious condition and worse outcomes. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020