More than half of a group of severely ill COVID-19 patients improved after receiving an experimental antiviral drug, although there is no way to know the odds of that happening without the drug, because there was no comparison group, doctors said on Friday.
The results published in the New England Journal of Medicine are the first in COVID-19 patients for remdesivir.
The Gilead Sciences drug has shown promise against other coronaviruses in the past and in lab tests against the one causing COVID-19, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
No drugs have been approved for treating the disease. At least five large studies are testing remdesivir, and the company also has given it to more than 1,700 patients on a case-by-case emergency basis.
Friday’s results are on 53 of those patients, ages 23 to 82, hospitalized in the US, Europe, Canada and Japan. Thirty-four of them were sick enough to require breathing machines.
All were given the drug intravenously for 10 days or as long as they tolerated it.
After 18 days on average, 36 patients, or 68 percent, needed less oxygen or breathing machine support.
Eight others worsened. Seven patients died, nearly all of them older than 70.
The 13 percent mortality rate is lower than seen in some other reports, but no true comparisons can be made without a study rigorously testing the drug in similar groups of patients, the authors said.
A dozen patients had serious problems, but it was not clear whether they were from the drug or their disease. Those included septic shock and trouble with kidneys and other organs. Four discontinued treatment because of health problems they developed.
“It looks encouraging,” said Elizabeth Hohmann, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is helping lead one of the studies testing the drug.
The problems that occurred were not unexpected given the disease, she said.
Derek Angus, critical care chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was not involved with the research, said the recovery rate is good, but “there is no way of knowing from this series if remdesivir was helpful.”
“We cannot draw definitive conclusions from these data, but the observations from this group of hospitalized patients who received remdesivir are hopeful,” said lead author Jonathan Grein, director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a statement from Gilead.
The Foster City, California-based company provided the medication and also helped analyze the results.
Results from more rigorous studies are expected by the end of this month.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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