In anticipation of COVID-19 surges in China after last week's easing of public health restrictions, the demand for the generic liver drug ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) has risen dramatically, but manufacturers say they can't keep up, and experts warn about the limited nature of the study fueling the demand, Scrip reports.
UDCA is used for the treatment of gallstones and for liver diseases involving a slowing or blockage of bile from the liver (eg, primary biliary cirrhosis).
The skyrocketing demand was triggered by a Dec 5 Nature study by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the Berlin Institute of Health at Charite in Germany. The researchers concluded that UDCA reduces signaling from the farnesoid X receptor (FXR), which they said reduced angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) expression in human and animal tissues. ACE2 facilitates entry of SARS-CoV-2 into human cells.
"We identify a novel function of FXR in controlling ACE2 expression and provide evidence that modulation of this pathway could be beneficial for reducing SARS-CoV-2 infection, paving the road for future clinical trials," the researchers wrote.
'A hotly pursued magic drug'
Scrip said the study "elicited great interest in China, particularly among those not vaccinated at all or fully jabbed and those worrying domestic vaccines may not provide effective protection. Literally overnight, UDCA became a hotly-pursued 'magic drug.'"
As a result, some physicians in China are recommending UDCA to prevent infection in high-risk patients, and drug manufacturers Xuantai Pharma and New China Pharma saw share prices jump by 53% to 69%, respectively, last week.
But experts have noted that the study was very limited and didn't evaluate UDCA efficacy. The manufacturers have also expressed caution, with one saying that it can't meet the demand and another saying it hasn't conducted studies on the drug's mechanism of action and that it isn't approved for COVID-19.