By Kathleen Berger
Executive Producer, Science & Technology
Saint Louis University is testing what could be the first treatment for the novel coronavirus. It’s an experimental antiviral medication developed for treating Ebola, called remdesivir. The trial investigates its safety and effectiveness in treating COVID 19.
Participating in the study is an option for COVID-19 patients at SSM Saint Louis University Hospital. Sarah George is associate professor of infectious diseases and principal investigator of the drug trial in St. Louis. She’s been researching viral diseases for more than 20 years.
“The drug (remdesivir) probably has the best data behind it of any of the therapies currently being tested,” said George. “The hope is to get an answer on this one as soon as possible. I would say maybe another two months, maybe less than that.”
The coronavirus causing COVID-19 is similar to the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS. Laboratory testing and animal studies suggest remdesivir successfully targets the part of the virus that makes an enzyme the virus needs in order to reproduce. So the drug could help limit the reproduction and limit the spread of these viruses in the body.
The St. Louis University Center for Vaccine Development is one of roughly 75 centers worldwide involved in the drug trials supported by the National Institutes of Health. Study participants will receive the drug or a placebo.
“It’s what we call an randomized double-blind placebo controlled trial. What that means is that we have a very good control group here. People will either get the drug or they will get a placebo. We won’t know and they wont know what they’re getting,” explained George. “It’s the best way of determining if a treatment actually works.”
Those who are eligible for the study must be at least 18-years old; hospitalized at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital; and have laboratory-confirmed COVID-19.
Those who are hospitalized and seriously ill at any hospital may also have access to remdesivir. The drugmaker, Gilead Sciences, is working with regulatory authorities for expanded access programs.
“The programs enable hospitals or physicians to apply for emergency use of remdesivir for multiple severely ill patients at a time,” Daniel O’Day, Chairman & CEO of Gilead wrote in an open letter. “These are patients who cannot take part in clinical trials and where the word ‘emergency’ is all too real for them, their families and the healthcare providers advocating on their behalf.”
There is newly released information that may give hope for the outcome of the larger scale remdesivir trial. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, are results of a smaller study. Slightly more than two-thirds of a group of 53 severely ill coronavirus patients, ages 23 to 82, improved after receiving remdesivir through programs that allow for “compassionate use.”
However, there’s no way to know the odds of that happening without the drug because there was no comparison group, the authors noted.
All were given the drug through an IV for 10 days or as long as they tolerated it. Thirty-four of them were sick enough to require breathing machines. After 18 days on average, 36 patients, or 68%, needed less oxygen or breathing machine support. Eight others worsened.
Seven patients died, nearly all of them over age 70.