In what could be a major breakthrough for medical science, researchers at the University of Hong Kong say they have identified a chemical substance that could battle numerous viruses, including those causing infections like influenza, Mers, and Sars.
The scientists claim that the compound could even be used to tackle as yet unknown viruses that emerge in the future threatening to cause epidemics.
Leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said the chemical compound, named AM580, is powerful because it doesn't just target a specific or small number of viruses, but instead breaks the pathway that allows many types of viruses to replicate in the human body.
He explained that a covering, called double membrane vesicles, forms on human cells when they are infected by a virus and this creates a kind of "factory" where viruses replicate themselves.
AM580, he said, can prevent the formation of this factory, stopping the viruses from multiplying and then curing the patient.
The researchers said they had tested the chemical on mice during a two-year study. They found that it can effectively stop the replication of flu viruses such as H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, the coronaviruses that cause Sars and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and Enterovirus 71 which causes hand, foot, mouth disease.
Yuen said he is confident that it will also work on viruses that the human race has never encountered before.
"This is very broad-spectrum and it is quite potent. It is more broad-spectrum than the previous drugs that we know about ... so we can see that this is a drug with great potential," he said.
"It can be taken by injection, also by the oral route, and also by an intranasal spray. This is very important [because] many emerging infectious diseases, like influenza or Sars or Mers, are respiratory tract infections. If the compound can be administered by inhalation, that is a distinct advantage, and we did do this in the mice at least."
He said a chemical derivative of AM580 is already being used as a cancer drug in Japan with few side effects and he believes, therefore, that AM580 would also be safe as an antiviral.
Yuen said the research team has taken out a US patent on its finding and some investors have already expressed an interest in manufacturing the medication. He said he is optimistic that this could get underway within five years.