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US researchers to test drug targeting Covid-19 in early stages before it takes a severe form in patients

A drug that treats Covid-19 early could help people get back to work sooner, reduce complications and protect people at high risk, an expert explains
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Stanford researchers are looking at a drug that could target Covid-19 in its earliest stages. If the drug passes tests in humans, it could nip the infection in the bud, thereby preventing it from taking a severe form.

The drug in question is interferon-lambda, a naturally produced human protein that helps fight viral infections. They think injecting it might help mild patients strengthen their defenses against the coronavirus. The idea is to attack it early, so it only causes the least damage.

The team will test whether the drug helps treat coronavirus patients who do not need hospitalizations. In the absence of specific medications to treat those with mild disease, doctors currently only prescribe pain relievers and fluids.

“What if we could treat people on ‘day one,’ when they’re first diagnosed?” Dr Walter Mills, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians, who is not involved in the Stanford trial, told The Mercury News. “It would help people get back to work sooner, reduce complications, and protect people at high risk," he added.

“Even though these individuals may not need hospitalization, infection with Covid-19 results in respiratory symptoms and lost productivity," Dr Upinder Singh, who is a part of the Stanford team, said in a statement. “Plus — and this is important — patients with mild disease contribute to community disease transmission."

So they will investigate if the drug shrinks viral shedding — the amount of virus an infected person releases from the body. If it manages to do so, it could reduce spread to members of the family and the community, a step crucial to controlling cluster outbreaks.

Upward of 80% — are outpatients, for whom no drugs have been proven safe and effective, say experts. (Getty Images)

Why the potential drug could be important?

The only Covid-19 drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use is remdesivir. But only hospitalized patients, who make up about 20% of the total cases, have access to it.

 The remaining, upward of 80%, are outpatients, for whom no drugs have been proven safe and effective, Singh said. 

What is more, the drug proved to be safe when tested on patients with hepatitis viral infections. “Its safety profile appears to be excellent,”  principal investigator Dr Prasanna Jagannathan from Stanford, said in a statement.

Further, the drug might produce fewer side effects because most body parts do not recognize it, barring the lungs, intestine and liver. And the drug might work because the coronavirus and protein have a common target: lungs and intestine.

Animal studies suggest the drug holds promise. In infected mice, the molecule stopped the virus from multiplying, prompting the team to carry out human tests.

Now, the Stanford team will evaluate the drug by testing it on 120 patients. The participants of the study will include those diagnosed with mild Covid-19 at Stanford Health Care and other local hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics and drive-through testing sites.

Of the 120, only one group will receive the drug. And for the next 28 days, the team will see if these patients fare better than the control group. 

Commenting on the study, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and medical philanthropist Steve Kirsch told Mercury News:  “If I were sick, this drug would be my first choice. Like a house on fire, the earlier you call, the less damage there is, and the faster the repairs.”