U.S. researchers, following the lead of scientists in other countries, have launched studies to see whether widely-available, low-cost generic drugs can be used to help treat the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
There are currently no vaccines or treatments for the highly-contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness, so patients can only receive supportive care for now.
But a 1,500-person trial, led by the University of Minnesota, began this week to see whether malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine can prevent or reduce the severity of COVID-19. Two other trials are studying the blood pressure drug losartan as a possible treatment for the disease.
The malaria drug, also being tested in China, Australia and France, was touted earlier this week by Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, who recovered from malaria in 2000 after taking the medication.
Besides having a direct antiviral effect, hydroxychloroquine suppresses the production and release of proteins involved in the inflammatory complications of several viral diseases.
“We are trying to leverage the science to see if we can do something in addition to minimizing contacts,” said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and vice president for clinical affairs. “Results are likely in weeks, not months.”
Most people infected with the new coronavirus develop only mild flu-like symptoms, but around 20 percent can have more severe disease that can lead to pneumonia requiring hospitalization.
The fast-spreading virus, which emerged in China in December and is now in more than 150 countries, has infected more than 214,000 and killed over 8,700 people worldwide, including at least 145 in the United States. Experts say it could take a year or more to have a preventive vaccine ready, so effective treatments are desperately needed.
A French team on Tuesday said initial results from a 24-patient trial of hydroxychloroquine showed that 25% of patients given the drug still carried the coronavirus after six days, compared with 90% of patients given a placebo.
Tolar said he bought 1,500 doses of hydroxychloroquine for a “laughable” amount of money. “We don’t need a multibillion-dollar investment. It is part of the beauty of this approach,” he said.
But he and others cautioned that people should not be using any prescription drugs without medical oversight.
“These treatments should be used only in hospitals by critical care specialists,” said Dr. Russel Buhr, critical care pulmonologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Also this week, the University of Minnesota launched two trials testing losartan – one to measure whether the hypertension drug reduces the risk of organ failure for COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized, and another looking at whether the drug can limit the need for hospitalizations.