Doctors may be able to treat twice as many patients as previously thought with the only medication shown to affect the progress of COVID-19, according to an international study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study examined the dosing of the antiviral drug remdesivir, and found that hospitalized patients who received it for five days fared about as well as those who received it for 10 days.
“Shorter is better,” said Dr. Francisco Marty, an infectious diseases physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the study’s authors. Doctors initially thought 10 days would be needed, but this finding “doubles the estimated supply of the drug,” Marty said.
Financed by remdesivir’s maker, Gilead Sciences, the study included about 400 COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized but not on a ventilator in 55 hospitals around the world, including the Brigham in Boston and Miriam Hospital in Providence.
The study did not have a placebo control and so can’t be used to gauge the drug’s efficacy. But Marty said that it provides additional data backing up a separate study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which in preliminary results found that patients who received remdesivir spent four fewer days in the hospital than those who didn’t get the medication.
Researchers nationwide are racing to find treatments that stop or slow the effects of COVID-19, which can be severe, longlasting, and sometimes fatal in a minority of those infected. Several antiviral and anti-inflammatory drugs are under investigation, but remdesivir was the first out of the gate with evidence of modest effects.
Amid a brouhaha over uneven distribution of remdesivir to hospitals, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health took charge. The drug is now available to hospitalized patients statewide, Marty said.
The next step, he said, is to show whether remdesivir is effective earlier in the disease process. The emergency approval allows it only for very sick patients who need oxygen.
“If we could move the treatment earlier in the disease, can we avoid people needing oxygen at all?” Marty asked. Perhaps earlier treatment will prevent the lung damage that makes recovery from COVID-19 so difficult and prolonged, he said.