First COVID-19 drug research experiment in space set to launch to ISS

A SpaceX rocket will help escort coronavirus treatment drug remdesivir to the space station.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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The ICE Cubes Facility on the ISS will host the remdesivir drug research experiment.


When SpaceX's CRS-21 mission launches to the International Space Station this weekend, it will be loaded with all sorts of supplies and research, including the first COVID-19 drug experiment set to take place in space. The launch is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 5.

The experiment won't involve astronauts undergoing any treatments. This is all about improving the efficiency of antiviral drug remdesivir, which is given intravenously. 

"Scientists will use Europe's commercial ICE Cubes Service to test a COVID-19 medicine in microgravity in order to better understand how remdesivir interacts with its delivery substance cyclodextrin so that the drug's efficiency can be improved," the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a statement on Friday.

ICE Cubes stands for "International Commercial Experiment Cubes." The service allows commercial entities access to microgravity space research. "It will be the first time any COVID-19-related research takes place on the International Space Station," ESA said.  

Remdesivir has been a source of optimism when it comes to treating COVID-19, the disease that's ravaging the world during the coronavirus pandemic. In October, the FDA issued an emergency authorization for use of the antiviral in the hope it could help patients with severe COVID-19. 

However, there isn't a wide agreement on whether remdesivir is effective. Also in November, the World Health Organization issued a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir in COVID-19 patients, saying "there is currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients."

The groups behind the remdesivir work on the ISS hope it could make the drug more effective and also lower the risk of using it for patients with kidney issues, said technology company InnoStudio, one of the customers for the experiment, in a statement in November (PDF link).

The experiment will take place in ESA's Columbus laboratory, a module on the ISS that hosts science and physics research efforts.