The latest drug being touted as the miracfle cure for COVID-19 is – pauses to check Twitter – remdesivir.
News of “positive data” sent Gilead Sciences Inc.’s stock prices soaring and generated a flurry of hyperbolic media stories.
The U.S. government-sponsored study – which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published – consisted of 1,063 patients in hospital with COVID-19 who were randomly assigned either to receive remdesivir, which is an antiviral drug, or a placebo.
Those treated with the drug recovered (meaning they were discharged from hospital) after 11 days on average, compared with 15 days for the placebo group. Eight per cent of patients in the remdesivir group died, compared with 11 per cent in the placebo group.
In other words, yet another drug U.S. President Donald Trump has touted as a “game-changer” is meh.
Remdesivir appears, at best, to provide a modest reduction, if that, in recovery time for patients who are already recovering. Another rushed, partly completed study, published in The Lancet, found that patients treated with remdesivir had an average recovery time of 21 days, compared with 23 days for patients given a placebo. In other words – no significant difference.
This doesn’t mean remdesivir is useless. It can, in the lab, stop the replication of the coronavirus. And it appears to do so, at least a bit, in some patients too.
But it certainly isn’t a silver bullet. Nothing is.
We have to break out of this ridiculous cycle of publication of partial information followed by overexuberance and then the necessary but always belated reality checks.
Research takes time and we need to let the scientific process play out. Crossing a potential treatment off the list is not failure, it’s progress.
Both patience and rigorous standards are required despite the understandable yearning for some weapons in the global coronavirus fight.
Right now, the blunt reality is that there are no effective drug treatments for COVID-19, let alone a cure. Treatment guidelines published earlier this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal show just how few treatment tools are in the tool box.
Scientists around the world are trying. There are an estimated 150 drugs under study, and another 70 vaccine candidates. Medicine is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at COVID-19.
For the most part, scientists and clinicians are repurposing existing drugs. Remdesivir, for example, we developed to treat Ebola. A number of antivirals are being tested, including the HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir.
The antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were much-ballyhooed, described with Trumpian modesty as “the biggest game-changer in the history of medicine” before that balloon burst.
Hydroxychloroquine is still being studied and used in some cases, but it appears to have limited benefits and potentially severe side effects like heart failure.
Researchers are also examining drugs that calm the immune system, like interferon beta, which is used to treat multiple sclerosis, and dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat inflammation.
These drugs have potential because they can squelch an overreaction of the immune system, such as the deadly “cytokine storm” that occurs in some COVID-19 patients.
Another promising, but not yet ready for prime time, treatment is convalescent plasma – transfusing antibodies from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 into sick patients. This approach, which has been around since the late 19th century, is being tested in Canada, but there are no definitive coronavirus-related results.
What the world wants – and needs – to fight this pandemic is a vaccine.
No matter how good treatments are, prevention is preferable. A coronavirus vaccine, if it can be developed, could prevent illness – entirely, or partly.
A high-stakes international race is under way to create the first vaccine, and it’s happening with unprecedented scope and speed, as well as some fascinating alliances. Oxford University has teamed up with AstraZeneca. The U.S. government has teamed up with the pharma giant Johnson & Johnson.
While a final product is likely 12 to 18 months away, or even more, preliminary results are expected in the coming weeks.
Hopefully, those early findings, no matter how positive, will be greeted with a lot more restraint than potential COVID-19 therapies have been. Exaggeration and hype diminishes science and builds false hope, and that benefits no one.
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