Some of the treatments to be tested are drugs already being used for other illnesses like HIV, ebola and malaria.
The kick-start of the massive effort to test four drugs already on the market, or combinations of those drugs, comes as more than 222,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 9,000 have died, according to the latest count from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
Called the SOLIDARITY trial, participating countries currently include Argentina, Canada, France, Bahrain, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and Thailand, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the general-director of the WHO at a March 18 press conference.
The trials will determine whether these treatments can lower mortality rates or reduce negative outcomes like requiring intensive care units — which could free up hospital space for more severe cases.
“Multiple small trials with different methodologies may not give us the clear, strong evidence we need about which treatments help to save lives,” explained Ghebreyesus. “WHO and its partners are therefore organizing a study in many countries in which some of these untested treatments are compared with each other.”
SOLIDARITY is designed to create a robust data pool needed to effectively combat the spread of COVID-19, he added.
Drugs being tested in the trial include an anti-malaria treatment called Chloroquine, along with an anti-viral drug called Redemsivir, a combination of HIV drugs Lopinavir and Ritonavir, plus a combination of Lopinavir and Ritonavir infused with interferon beta, which is a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis.
U.S President Donald Trump announced on Thursday health officials are working to acquire a malaria drug called Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. That drug will be used in a large clinical trial in the country, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn announced at the same press conference. The U.S. is not currently part of the SOLIDARITY trial.
Why already-approved drugs could work against the coronavirus
Some of the drugs used for the SOLIDARITY program have been carefully picked due to their proven effectiveness against other similar coronaviruses like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in animal models, said Matthias Götte, a virologist and professor in the department of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta.
Götte and colleagues were some of the first in Canada to publish research related to COVID-19 last month, where they discovered why the ebola drug Remdesivir may also be effective against the new coronavirus.
Remdesivir is one of the drugs set to be tested in the WHO organized clinical trials.
Treatments like Remdesivir work by blocking an enzyme within the virus. Without that enzyme — Götte refers to it as the “little machine” — the virus can’t be replicate and is stopped in its tracks.
The drug he and his team had studied for several years to fight Ebola may now be helpful in the global fight against COVID-19, he said.
The reason the WHO is examining also drugs that have already been used in trials against other diseases is because it can take a decade to create a brand new drug — which was the case with HIV drugs, he said.
It’s possible these drugs can be effective against multiple viral diseases which is why they are being tested now against COVID-19.
“That’s why scientists say we have to go to drugs that are already been tested and that show a broader spectrum of activities against viruses,” he said.
“ fully approved drugs, there is a safety profile available, but it’s not yet known how it will work in humans against coronaviruses,” he said, adding much of the data so far is from animal testing.
As the trials continue globally, what will also be considered is the need for multiple treatments, as the virus may develop resistance against an antiviral drug. Multiple drugs targeting different aspects of the virus will be required, he said.
Even with heightened anxiety at this time, it’s important to understand these trials need to be thorough and follow standards in order for them to be effective, said Götte.
“These trials are the gold standard… we have to be patient and wait for the results,” he said. Gilead Sciences, the biotechnology company that developed Remdesivir, will, however, have some results from trials as soon as April.
“Things are moving extremely quickly, so this is one effort, this is a start, and we hope that some of the drugs that are right now tested show some effect,” he said.
“Everything is moving at an incredible pace and that is the good news.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
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