A cheap, widely used anti-parasite medication used to treat head lice killed Covid-19 cells in a petri dish and Aussie researchers hope to start human trials in a month.
Dr Kylie Wagstaff from the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University who carried out the study found Ivermectin began to kill Sars-COV-2 cells that cause Covid-19 in a petri dish within 24 hours.
Within 48 hours "we could prevent all replication of the virus in the cells,' she said.
The study has been published online in the journal Antiviral Research.
Because the drug is already safely used in humans to treat parasites like head lice, River Blindness and scabies, it won't be necessary to undertake lengthy animal studies and human clinical trials can be fast tracked on Covid-19 patients.
Before human trials can start Dr Wagstaff has to test the drug at levels that are safe to use in humans and check what dose is required to kill off Covid-19.
These studies are underway and could take at least a month. "It will be a month at the earliest before we can start human trials, no sooner than that," she said.
"Ivermectin is very widely used and seen as a safe drug. We need to figure out now whether the dosage you can use it at in humans will be effective – that's the next step," Dr Wagstaff said.
"In times when we're having a global pandemic and there isn't an approved treatment, if we had a compound that was already available around the world then that might help people sooner. Realistically it's going to be a while before a vaccine is broadly available," she said.
The study led by the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) with the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) is a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital.
The team is currently applying for funding for human trials from the Australian government's Medical Research Future Fund.
Dr Wagstaff said she hoped the research would not prompt a run on sales of the medication.
"There isn't enough evidence it will work in humans, it's a possibility and it needs to be investigated seriously first," she said. Dr Wagstaff has been studying the drug and its ability to kill off viruses for over a decade.
Her previous research has found that it also works against HIV, Influenza, Dengue fever and Zika virus.
The theory is that the Sars-COV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has a protein that stops our cells mounting an immune response, Ivermectin stops that protein, allowing the immune system to work, she said.
Dr Wagstaff said she was thrilled when her experiments showed there was a possibility the drug could treat Covid-19.
"It's nice when something you've been working on for a long time might help people," she said.
Ivermectin is available on the PBS and costs around $24 here, in third world countries it is for sale for as little as 10-30 cents per tablet.
It is on the World Health Organisation's list of essential medicines.
Because her previous research had shown that Ivermectin was useful in treating viruses Dr Wagstaff said she immediately wanted to trial it against Covid-19 when the virus emerged as a problem in January.
Her team is working with the Doherty Institute which was the first scientific body to grow the virus outside China.
The Doherty Institute sent her lab a sample of the virus and the team immediately began testing.