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Torrey Pines lab testing 13,000 drugs to find treatment for COVID-19

Sanford Burnham Prebys hopes to develop a drug cocktail using compounds already tested in humans

SAN DIEGO — A North County San Diego research lab is testing thousands of drugs to see if they can be used as treatments for COVID-19.

Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute is working with a drug library created by Scripps Research through $20 million in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In order to study coronavirus, scientists must have samples of the virus delivered to the facility, and that’s exactly what happened last month at the SBP lab at Torrey Pines.

Researchers are testing more than 13,000 drugs and compounds to see if they can kill the virus.

Professor Sumit Chanda is the lab’s director. Initially, Dr. Chanda hopes to find 30 to 40 compounds that might work. Then, researchers will do further testing to identify a handful of compounds that show promise.

“We hope to get down to maybe three or four that are promising, and move them into animal studies or directly into human trials,” said Chanda.

Because coronaviruses can become resistant to treatment drugs, Chanda expects they will need more than one compound to treat COVID-19.

“The strategy really is going to be developing a drug cocktail that boxes the virus into a corner. We did this for HIV. HIV therapy consists of about three antiretroviral virals,” Chanda said.

The infectious disease expert hopes his research can produce a treatment for COVID-19 fairly quickly because all the compounds he is testing have been used in humans before.

“If they can knock down the virus, we know that there is a safety record associated with these compounds and these can be very quickly developed into candidates that can go into clinical trials for testing to see if they work in humans,” Chanda said.

Some of the drugs being tested could be fast-tracked for approval, Chanda added, so they could be available to treat COVID-19 in two to three months.


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According to the CDC, coronavirus (COVID-19) is a family of viruses that is spreadable from person to person. Coronavirus is believed to have been first detected in a seafood market in Wuhan, China in December 2019. If someone is sick with coronavirus, the symptoms they may show include mild to severe respiratory illness, cough, and difficulty breathing. 

Currently, there is no vaccine, however, the CDC suggests the following precautions, as with any other respiratory illness: 

Know how it spreads: 

  • There is no vaccine 
  • The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus
  • It is thought to spread mainly from person-person between people in close contact
  • And believed to be spread by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes

Protect yourself

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds
  • If soap and water aren't available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Put distance between yourselves and others

Protect others

  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Wear a facemask if you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • If you don't have tissue, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow
  • Immediately wash your hands after coughing and sneezing 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe

You can find information on disinfecting and cleaning on the CDC's How to Protect Yourself page.

The California Department of Public Health has issued guidance on the use of cloth face coverings to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. 

The County of San Diego has made face coverings mandatory for those working with the public including grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, convenience stores, and similar businesses.

While officials say these face coverings are not a substitute for practices like social distancing and handwashing, there is evidence to suggest that the use of cloth face coverings by the public during a pandemic could help reduce disease transmission. Officials do not recommend the public use N-95 or surgical masks which are needed by health care workers and first responders. 

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