South Korea on Friday gave approval to an early-stage clinical trial of Celltrion Inc's experimental coronavirus or COVID-19 treatment drug, making out the nation's first such antibody drug to get tested on humans.

Drugmakers around the world are struggling to develop vaccines and treatments for the deadly novel virus that has infected more than 13.8 million people worldwide and claimed the lives of over 580,000 globally.

Celltrion's antibody treatment is directed against the surface of the virus and designed to block it from locking on to human cells. The company plans to enroll 32 healthy volunteers in collaboration with a local hospital for Phase I study of the drug, which demonstrated an up to a 100-fold reduction in viral load in animal tests.

COVID-19 in South Korea

Vaccine Human Trial
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Celltrion said overseas human trials of its treatment will begin soon across Europe, including the UK, which will be followed by global second and third trials in patients with mild and moderate symptoms. It anticipates primary results from these studies by the end of this year and aims to commercialize the drug by early 2021, it said.

"Our human trials are conducted globally, so we will be able to export for sure, but will offer it to patients abroad only after securing domestic supplies for South Korea," Kee Woo-sung, its chief executive officer, told Reuters. Its antibody treatment was developed after it was identified from a blood sample taken from one of the first South Korean patients who recovered from COVID-19 in February.

He said drugmakers should make prices for their COVID-19 treatments affordable to help end the pandemic, adding prices of its drug will be cheaper than that of Gilead Sciences Inc's antiviral drug remdesivir. In June, Gilead priced its COVID-19 treatment remdesivir at $2,340 per patient for developed nations. Other companies developing potential COVID-19 treatments include Eli Lilly and Co, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc and AbbVie.

(With agency inputs)