Avigan influenza tablets.
Avigan influenza tablets. Image Credit: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Tokyo: Hopes that an antiviral drug developed to treat influenza and used to treat Ebola can be used to treat the coronavirus is boosting shares in Japan’s Fujifilm Holdings Corp. to a record.

The Japanese government signaled its support for the drug Avigan, including stockpiling enough doses for 2 million people in an economic stimulus package, even though its efficacy in treating the coronavirus has yet to be proved.

Fujifilm unit Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co. began phase III trials for the drug to treat the virus last week.

Investors aren’t waiting for the results. Shares in Fujifilm have climbed 17% since the start of the year versus a 22% decline in the broader Topix Index.

The stock hit a high of as much as 6,420 yen on Monday in Tokyo. That’s the highest on record, according to data compiled by Bloomberg going back to 1974.

Once known just as a maker of photo film and rival of now-bankrupt Kodak, Fujifilm has become a good local example of a company that’s been able to pivot its business.

In the mid-2000s it changed its name, announced a new strategy to turn itself into a “comprehensive health care company” and paid 155 billion yen ($1.4 billion) for a majority stake in local pharma maker Toyama Chemical.

Tamiflu rival, used to treat Ebola

Among the drugs in development at Toyama at the time was a Tamiflu rival known as T-705, now better known as Avigan.

The drug didn’t initially meet those lofty expectations. Avigan was given only conditional approval in Japan in 2014 to treat novel or re-emergent influenza, not the seasonal flu, and is produced only at the request of the government, which stockpiles it for emergencies.

Avigan isn’t available at hospitals or stores, though it received a boost later in 2014 when it was used to treat patients of the Ebola outbreak.

“With the failure or dubious results from other agents being investigated for the treatment of Covid-19, more attention is being turned toward Avigan,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Caroline Stewart.

Avigan “has a mechanism of action for selectively inhibiting RNA polymerase involved in influenza viral replication,” Fujifilm said in a statement March 31.

“It is expected that Avigan may potentially have an antiviral effect on the new coronavirus as it is classified into the same type of single-stranded RNA virus as influenza.”