Several Australian biotech companies have joined the worldwide war against COVID-19, repurposing existing drugs aimed at fighting HIV and treating complications from bone marrow transplants to battle the novel coronavirus.

While much of the attention has centred around a vaccine for COVID – which Australia’s biggest ASX-listed company, CSL, is working on in conjunction with the University of Queenslandthere’s also a strong need for effective treatments to help the more than 6 million people currently fighting COVID-19 symptoms.

So far the only approved treatment for COVID-19 is Gilead Science’s Remdesivir, which has been shown to reduce the time COVID patients spend in hospital.

But both ASX-listed Mesoblast (ASX:MSB) and Cynata Therapeutics (ASX:CYP) are beginning studies to test the use of their mesenchymal stem cell drug candidates to treat coronavirus patients suffering acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a major cause of death from COVID-19.

The terrifying inflammatory response leaves patients struggling to breathe as their lungs fill with fluid.

In the case of Mesoblast, recruitment is underway in 30 US hospitals for a phase-three clinical trial of the company’s Ryoncil stem cell therapy, with a safety monitoring board to decide by early September whether the trial should proceed.

A pilot study using Ryoncil to treat patients suffering from moderate to severe ARDS at New York’s Mt Sinai Hospital yielded promising results, with nine of 12 patients discharged from hospital in an average of 10 days.

Melbourne’s Cynata, which is is also developing a treatment based on mesenchymal stem cells for graft-versus-host disease, is recruiting patients for a COVID-19 clinical trial in New South Wales.

A dozen COVID patients will receive Cynata’s Cymerus infusions along with the current standard of care, while another 12 patients will form a control group.

In addition to treating ARDS, the study will test how the Cymerus infusions will treat other inflammatory responses from COVID-19 infections including sepsis and cytokine release syndrome.

Melbourne’s Dimerix (ASX:DXB) says its anti-inflammatory drug candidate DMX-200 is also being looked at to treat ARDS, having been selected for the worldwide REMAP-CAP Trial.

The drug is in development for diabetic kidney disease and a kidney disease known as focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS).

Noxopharm (ASX:NOV) hopes to begin this quarter enrolling 30 to 40 COVID-19 patients in a phase-one trial using its anti-cancer drug Veyonda to treat the septic shock associated with the cytokine storm sometimes caused by the coronavirus.

A cytokine storm is an overproduction of the body’s immune cells.

Results could be expected early next year, the company says.


Lab tests progressing

Meanwhile, Sydney-based Biotron (ASX:BIT) said last week that work was progressing “well” screening compounds from its proprietary small molecule compound library for antiviral activity against SARS-Cov-2, the virus that caused COVID-19.

The biotech company, which is primarily working on developing a cure for HIV, says it knows several of its compounds work well against the original SARS coronavirus from tests run back during the first outbreak in 2002-2004.

Assays now being conducted will provide a better understanding of the potential of the compounds to treat COVID-19, Biotron says.

Another Sydney-based company, Recce Pharmaceuticals (ASX:RCE), announced last month it had entered into an agreement with Durham, North Carolina-based Path BioAnalytics to test Recce’s synthetic infection-fighting polymers against SARS-CoV-2.


Even medical cannabis companies are involved

Medical cannabis companies are also working on COVID-19 treatments.

MGC Pharmaceuticals (ASX:MXC) last month reported that seven COVID-19 patients treated with its natural medicated spray at two hospitals in Israel had shown improvement, compared to a control group.

MGC says both substances contained in its natural medical spray have anti-inflammatory properties.

Because the spray is classified as a nutraceutical product – a functional food – MGC says it would be able to produce and sell it shortly after the trial ends if it is successful.

Incannex Healthcare (ASX:IHL) meanwhile is testing a combination of hydroxychloroquine and cannabidiol to treat sepsis-associated ARDS, a leading cause of death in COVID-19 patients.

Components of the combination have worked well in fighting inflammation in human cells in a test tube study, the company says.


Atomo’s tests

Atomo Diagnostics, which made its ASX debut in April, isn’t involved in searching for COVID treatments but has been supplying millions of rapid, self-administered COVID-19 antibody tests to companies in the US and France.

Atomo on Monday reported a full-year statutory loss of $9.2m on sales revenue of $5.4m — about a 10-fold increase from its revenue in the prior year.

About 60 per cent of that revenue has come from COVID testing, and it has put the company well ahead of projections, with $27.1m in cash on hand.

“A busy second half of the year for us,” co-founder and managing director John Kelly told Stockhead. “It’s been a sizeable boost for us.”

Australia’s Therapeutics Goods Administration on August 20 approved the company’s AtomoRapid COVID-19 antibody test for use in the country, and Atomo is working with partners to bring it to market here within a month or two, he said.