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Penn researchers take inventory of drugs that have been tried to treat coronavirus

A person wore a protective suit against the spread of the COVID-19.
A person wore a protective suit against the spread of the COVID-19.JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images

More than 100 drugs have been tried around the world in the battle against the deadly coronavirus pandemic, according to a team from the University of Pennsylvania that is taking an inventory of them.

Many drugs approved to treat other diseases are being tried against the coronavirus, a use that’s known as “off-label." The team from the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn looked at studies reported by doctors between Dec. 1, 2019, and March 27, 2020. The team found doctors had used 115 different off-label and experimental treatments in trying to help 9,152 patients.

“We can’t win this fight if we don’t take stock of the tools that are already being used and search for new ones that could be effective. While off-label use is happening all over the world, there’s currently no system in place to track it, so we felt like we had to create one,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. David C. Fajgenbaum, an assistant professor of translational medicine and human genetics.

The researchers reported on their efforts Wednesday in the journal Infectious Diseases and Therapy. The list of treatments is posted on a website and is being updated, the team said.

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Fajgenbaum said the goal of the work was to provide a resource for what may be candidates for further study.

“We hear a lot about the same handful of drugs, but we show here that there are many more currently in use than those that have already made headlines. Anything that shows promise anecdotally still needs to be rigorously tested in a clinical trial to see if it is effective and safe,” Fajgenbaum said in a statement from the university.

Fajgenbaum credits his own remission from a disease called Castleman Disease to use of an off-label drug. He is the executive director of the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network.

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“With the world facing its greatest public health crisis in a century, we decided to take action, using the same approach that helped me and applying it to potentially help find promising leads in the treatment of COVID-19,” Fajgenbaum said.

The study said, “Drug repurposing is the fastest route toward an effective and accessible treatment against COVID-19 before a vaccine is available. A previously unquantified but large number of treatments have been tried off-label or experimentally.”

“This study should serve as an inventory of treatments administered to COVID-19 patients and assist with prioritizing drugs for well-designed randomized controlled trials, having the potential to improve clinical outcomes and reduce the strain on inpatient care in the current pandemic,” it said.


Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com