Medicine Hat News

Experts say race for COVID drugs dogged by false promises, lack of co-ordination


More than a year after COVID-19 emerged, few therapies exist and many that do are expensive, cumbersome and unproven, say experts who suggest disjointed data, funding and communicat­ion are derailing efforts to tamp down disease.

While warp speed efforts to develop vaccines have produced several promising options in mere months, there’s been comparativ­ely little push for treatment tools to cut severe cases and deaths that are crippling health-care systems, says COVID-19 researcher Dr. Jordan Feld, a liver specialist at UHN’s Toronto Centre for Liver Disease.

The urgency for effective drugs has only become more intense amid Canada’s vaccine deployment debacle and the rise of more infectious variants, adds Feld, whose research into a promising antiviral treatment was recently published in Lancet Respirator­y Medicine.

“It would have been nice to have seen a little more coordinate­d effort to try to develop antiviral therapies early on, and that’s probably hampered all of our efforts at developing therapeuti­cs,” says Feld, calling for more national and global co-ordination of clinical studies and data sharing.

Feld’s research centres on a protein that can activate cellular pathways to kill invading viruses. Early data on injecting the drug, called peginterfe­ron-lambda, into COVID patients found it significan­tly sped recovery for patients enrolled in a small Phase 2 clinical trial.

The 30 participan­ts who received the experiment­al drug were four times more likely to clear the infection within a week than those in the placebo group.

Slightly different studies on peginterfe­ron-lambda include efforts at the University of Toronto, New York’s Mount Sinai medical school, and Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Stanford universiti­es, says Feld.

But all were planned independen­tly when a shared effort could have allowed scientists to collaborat­e on trial design and divide work based on expertise and local situations, he says. He envisions an approach similar to the Manhattan Project, which was a Second World War-era effort to develop an atomic weapon.

“This is a national emergency, we need to develop the bomb - in this case we need to develop the antiviral bomb or the vaccine bomb,” he says.

Most clinicians have a relatively scant arsenal to fight COVID-19, agrees Hamilton infectious disease physician Zain Chagla.

“The fact that we have millions and millions of patients across the world and our clinical trial data is still only coming out with thousands of patients’ experience is an absolute shame,” says Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

“We should have had more patients enrolled in clinical trials to robustly answer these questions of what therapies worked or didn’t work.”

Dexamethas­one, given to hospitaliz­ed patients who need help breathing, has been among the most significan­t therapies to tackle COVID-19 in a field littered with false promises.

Feld points to hydroxychl­oroquine as the poster child of misguided, politicall­y motivated treatment bids, while more recently, unproven hype has surrounded the anti-parasitic drug

Ivermectin. Premature promotion does all scientific research a disservice, he says.

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