Let me be the bearer of mild good news. Asian equity markets have stabilized on Friday, though their health remains in dire shape.
There's another glimmer of goods news, and a stock worth watching, in the form of Fujifilm Holdings (FUJIF) . The days of yesteryear saw Fuji and Eastman Kodak (KODK) go head to head in a camera-film world that now looks sepia-toned. Fujifilm has been reinventing itself with digital and instant cameras, printers and optical lenses.
And it makes pharmaceuticals. Its flu drug Avigan is being used by a Japanese hospital to treat Covid-19 patients. Fujifilm is considering increasing output of the drug, which was approved in Japan in 2014 with the proviso it only be used to treat new strains of flu that couldn't be treated with existing drugs.
Fujifilm's shares got a jolt mid-week, rising 15.5% on Wednesday, after a Chinese health official said a trial of Avigan in Shenzhen and another in Wuhan had shown promising results in treating Covid-19.
Fujifilm normally only makes Avigan when the Japanese government orders it. It had hoped the drug would be a rival to Tamiflu, but animal experiments showed some negative effects on the development of fetuses, so it's only used in emergencies. According to Nomura, the Japanese government has a stockpile of 2 million pills, and sold 1.9 million of them for ¥6.0 billion (US$55 million) in six months in the 2019 tax year.
While Avigan is hardly the wonder drug to treat Covid-19, its success will certainly help make Fujifilm's name in an area other than camera film. It isn't a cure, but helps to slow the virus in a way that allows the body to fight it better.
Avigan enters cells infected by a virus and hinders the ability of the virus to proliferate, by inhibiting RNA polymerase, an enzyme that the flu virus uses to replicate. The Covid-19 virus uses similar RNA to reproduce, and so Avigan seems to be having a similar effect.
China's Science and Technology Ministry official Zhang Xinmin said a clinical trial of 80 patients in Shenzhen, the "Silicon Valley of China" and next to me here in Hong Kong, has produced good results. Recovery time sped up to four days, from 11 days in regular cases. X-rays showed better lung condition, too. Another trial in Wuhan showed that the drug cut the time of a patient's fever to 2.5 days, from 4.2 days.
Fujifilm isn't commenting on the progress, since it feels its normal production for the drug is determined by the Japanese government. South Korea has said it is considering importing Avigan from Japan.
Japan is also holding clinical trials of the drug. The good news has been tamped down by word there that it doesn't seem to be effective in serious cases, where the virus has already multiplied.
Avigan, which is Fujifilm's brand name for its drug Favipiravir, was also used as emergency aid in treating the ebola virus outbreak in Guinea in late 2014 and early 2015. Again, it seemed to work on low to moderate levels of the virus in blood, but not severe cases. There were some ethical concerns about conducting full randomized trials of an experimental drug during such a lethal outbreak, so only 126 patients were studied, who all got the drug. It seemed to help in less-serious cases but wasn't incredibly conclusive.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health have started the first clinical trial in the United States for a Covid-19 drug with a Gilead Sciences (GILD) drug, Remdesivir. That's also being tested in China, and showed promise in animal studies for treating SARS and MERS. Remdesivir acts similarly to Fujifilm's favipiravir, but according to the brokerage Piper Sandler the Gilead drug appears far more potent.
With Covid-19, a Credit Suisse report suggests good results from Avigan and also from chloroqine, a malaria drug. Chloroqine is now a generic but originally made by Bayer (BAYZF) and Sanofi (SNY) , and is flagged to be added to Chinese treatment guidelines for Covid-19, as well as showing good signs in a French hospital. The Roche (RHHBF) drug Actemra also appears to treat Covid-19, with its use already listed in Chinese Covid-19 treatment guidelines and promising signs in Chinese hospitals. Chinese treatment also lists the HIV antiretroviral drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, but results are mixed there.
The wholly owned subsidiary Fujifilm Toyama Chemical makes Avigan in Japan; Favipiravir has Chinese approval for manufacture by Shanghai-listed Zhejiang Hisun Pharmaceutical SH:600267 as a flu drug in China. Japan and China are now both hustling to complete proper clinical trials in the drug's use to combat Covid-19.
The one-day gains in Fujifilm Holdings haven't continued, and the stock gave back half its gains with an 8.5% fall in Tokyo on Friday. But it's definitely a company worth watching during the market mayhem. At the very least, its emergence as a pharmaceutical player is being given a shot in the arm by Avigan.
"If its efficacy is demonstrated, we think it could do much to calm the public panic regarding Covid-19," Nomura analyst Tetsuya Wadaki said in a March 5 report. It "could make Fujifilm Holdings better known as a drug company."