There is currently no cure for the coronavirus.
The vast majority of people who contract the disease will get mild or moderate symptoms, and most of those who end up in hospital will survive. But for a small minority, the infection proves fatal.
In recent days, there has been promising news about a number of drugs that scientists hope could offer an effective treatment for those challenging cases.
Let’s take a look.
NHS to start trials of Synairgen drug ‘imminently’
The Southampton-based drug company Synairgen got approval from the UK medicines regulator yesterday to begin “Phase II” trials of its drug, the snappily-titled “SNG001”, for coronavirus patients.
Ian Hall, who is Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Nottingham and has no declared interest in the study, explains that the treatment involves interferon beta, “a molecule which forms part of the lung’s own defence mechanism to fight off viruses.”
“The idea behind the trial is that by giving more of this molecule to the lung this could help reduce the severity of infection with COVID-19, especially in those people who have reduced immune responses to the virus.”
Phase II trials – where neither the doctor administering the drug nor the patient knows if they are receiving the drug or a placebo – are scheduled to begin “imminently”.
Synairgen say the initial trials will involve 100 COVID-19 patients across “a number of NHS Trusts”.
The drug was already in development before the coronavirus crisis struck – it was initially designed as a treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The manufacturers say they will “pause” ongoing trials with COPD patients, having already administered the drug to 109 out of 120 “target participants”.
If the drug is successful in treating COVID-19, Professor Hall says “this would provide a way to reduce the severity of disease and potentially reduce death rates”.
Positive results from the trial would “represent a major step forward, especially as other approaches, such as using a vaccine to prevent disease, are likely to take much longer to develop”, he added.
Antimalarial drug chloroquine continues to attract attention
There have now been a number of studies that suggest chloroquine – a drug used for decades against malaria – could have a significant effect on COVID-19.
This week, FactCheck reported that scientists at the University of Queensland had seen promising results with chloroquine and an anti-HIV drug, Lopinavir/Ritonavir.
Today, the lead scientist, Professor David Paterson, announced his team are ready to go ahead with trials across Australia and want to get started by the end of the month. Professor Paterson says “these medications have the potential to be a real cure for all”.
And his is not the only team to find promise in chloroquine.
A study led by Professor Didier Raoult in Marseille that ended on 16 March found 70 per cent of hospitalised patients were cured of coronavirus after six days, compared to 12.5 per cent of the “control group” who did not get the drug.
(By “cured”, the researchers mean that patients no longer tested positive for COVID-19).
Dr Andrew Preston who is Reader in Microbial Pathogenesis at the University of Bath and declared no interests in the study, points out that the sample was unfortunately small – 26 patients on the drug plus 16 in the control group – and the results have “yet to be fully scrutinised” as they’ve only just been released.
Nevertheless, Dr Preston says, “among the oppressive darkness of the current situation, any glimmer of hope is very welcome”. He describes the results as showing a “significant effect”.
The researchers themselves go as far as to “recommend” that coronavirus patients be treated with chloroquine and another drug, azithromycin, “to cure their infection and to limit the transmission of the virus to other people in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the world”.
Though it’s worth remembering that the study has yet to be peer-reviewed and cannot tell us about the long-term effects of treatment.
Japan and China: glimmers of hope with favipiravir
An existing drug used against influenza in Japan has been “clearly effective” in the treatment of coronavirus – according to Chinese health officials.
Some 340 COVID-19 patients in the Chinese regions of Wuhan and Shenzhen took part in trials of favipiravir.
Those who were given the drug tested negative for the virus after four days, compared to eleven days on average for those who weren’t on the treatment.
There was also evidence that the drug improved patients’ lung condition.
But Japanese authorities warned that while it can helpfully speed up recovery in mild or moderate cases, favipiravir – which is marketed under the name Avigan – may not be as effective on people with more severe symptoms.
And the Financial TImes reports that the drug may not be suitable for pregnant women because doctors warn of a “serious side-effect that could cause foetal abnormalities”.
The producers of favipiravir / Avigan say they have two million doses stockpiled but could expand production if needed. The first clinical trial for use against COVID-19 has already started in Japan, with 86 patients due to be enrolled.