As illness and death linked to the new coronavirus accelerate across the U.S., federal officials are looking to existing and new treatments to battle the disease.
At a news conference Thursday, President Donald Trump said the malaria drug chloroquine and the experimental antiviral drug remdesevir are being tested as possible COVID-19 therapies and could slow the epidemic.
“It could have a very positive effect, or a positive effect, maybe not very, but maybe positive,” Trump said. “It’s very, very exciting.”
Currently, doctors have no established treatments for those suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus SARS-CoV-2, beyond supportive care that generally includes IV liquids, oxygen, fever reducers and pain killers.
Chloroquine as been in use since 1944 to fight malaria and has antiviral effects. Researchers believe it may interfere with the ability of the new virus to fuse to cell walls and infect them.
Remdesivir is an antiviral drug used to treat the Ebola virus and is known to be effective against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both coronaviruses with similarities to SARS-CoV-2.
It is an experimental drug developed a decade ago by Gilead Sciences, a California-based biotech firm.
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A study in Nature showed lab studies revealed remdesivir combined with chloroquine were “highly effective” against novel coronavirus and “should be assessed in human patients” with COVID-19. It is now being tested in several clinical trials as a treatment for the illness.
Remdesivir was used to treat a 35-year-old Washington state man in Snohomish County identified in January as the nation’s first person with COVID-19.
According to a case study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the man had a fever, cough and fatigue. He developed atypical pneumonia, commonly called walking pneumonia, and he was given oxygen and other treatments, including remdesivir. His condition improved days later and he was later discharged from a hospital in Everett, Washington.
Fast-tracking without harming
During the news conference, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn cautioned that while speed is of the essence, treatments also must be safe and effective. Data collection during testing is crucial.
“We need to make sure that this sea of new treatments will get the right drug to the right patient at the right dosage at the right time,” Hahn said. “As an example, we may have the right drug but it may not be in the appropriate dosage form right now and that may do more harm than good.”
Hahn said there are also efforts underway to look at the use of what’s known as convalescent plasma. The procedure involves taking blood from a recovered COVID-19 patient and concentratingthe immunoglobulins in the blood to possibly boost immunity against the virus.
“It’s a possible treatment, not a proven treatment … that could potentially provide a benefit,” he said.
WHO launches treatment tests
The World Health Organization on Wednesday launched multi-country clinical trials for possible treatments for the new coronavirus. Ten countries already agreed to take part in the so-called SOLIDARITY trial.
The drugs being tested include remdesivir, chloroquine and two drug cocktails used to fight HIV, lopinavir plus ritonavir and lopinavir, ritonavir, and interferon.