Japan will begin providing the anti-flu drug Avigan for free to 38 countries as early as this week for treating patients with the new coronavirus, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Tuesday.

Motegi also said over 70 countries, including the 38, have made requests for Avigan to Japan, which has decided to offer a $1 million grant to the United Nations Office for Project Services to buy and distribute the drug, also known as favipiravir, to countries that want it.

"I've heard that (the U.N. agency) is arranging to start transporting the drug around the holidays after procedures have been completed," Motegi told a press conference, referring to the last five days of the Golden Week holidays from Saturday through next Wednesday.

(Supplied photo shows tablets of the anti-influenza drug Avigan.)
[Photo courtesy of Fujifilm]

Among the 38 nations are 25 European countries, mostly from Eastern Europe, six in Asia including the Philippines and Malaysia, five in the Middle East such as Kuwait, and two from other regions, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Motegi said Japan will be provided with data obtained from clinical tests on COVID-19 patients that will be conducted in the recipient countries using the drug, which was developed by a group firm of Fujifilm Holdings Corp.

Japan has also been undertaking such tests, which will last through June, after a study in China suggested the drug is effective in treating patients.

"It is vital that the international community cooperate in swiftly developing effective therapeutic drugs," Motegi said, referring to such drugs as "critically important" in the short run, as with vaccine development in the long run.

The Japanese government has requested the group firm, Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co., to boost production of Avigan. But as the drug is also feared to cause birth defects, it cannot be administered to expecting mothers or those who may become pregnant.

As part of Japan's latest emergency package to cushion the economic fallout from the virus adopted earlier this month, 13.9 billion yen ($130 million) will be allocated to boost the stockpile of Avigan to three times the current amount for use in treating 2 million people infected with the coronavirus.

A scientific study in China concluded in March that the drug had been effective for patients, especially those with mild symptoms. Beijing has said it will officially adopt the drug as part of its treatment guidelines for COVID-19 patients.

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