A drug being developed to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by new coronavirus, is reportedly showing some promise but there's no guarantee initial reports will lead to a commercially available treatment.
Experts have been racing to find a treatment for the illness that’s killed more than 60,000 Americans and sickened more than 1 million. The experimental drug remdesivir has emerged as the first possible scientifically proven treatment.
Early data from a global study released Wednesday found patients given remdesivir recovered faster and may be less likely to die. However, another study published the same day in the British medical journal The Lancet found no clinical benefits to the drug.
Here's what we know about the drug:
What is remdesivir?
Remdesivir, pronounced rem-dees-ih-veer, is an experimental antiviral drug from the American biotech firm Gilead Sciences. It was originally tested as a treatment for Ebola and other coronaviruses including SARS and is now being tested as a possible COVID-19 treatment.
The drug impairs the ability of the virus to replicate, according to John Scott, chair of the department of pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“You’re decreasing the degree of infection so the immune system can fight. It’s like taking fuel away from the fire,” he said.
Dr. Aneesh Mehta, lead investigator for the portion of the remdesivir trial at Emory University in Atlanta, stressed the drug and other antivirals are not "silver bullets" that immediately get rid of an infection and the damage doesn't just "all go away" when the virus is gone.
Are coronavirus patients being treated with remdesivir?
Remdesivir has not been approved anywhere for any use, according to Gilead, but is being given to patients in six clinical trials to determine if it is an effective and safe treatment for coronavirus.
Outside of clinical trials, Gilead also has implemented programs that provide emergency treatment access for children and pregnant women with severe symptoms of COVID-19 and is trying to expand emergency access beyond these two groups.
Fauci said a U.S. federal trial showed 'proof of concept'
Early results released Wednesday from the global study conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases found patients who received remdesivir had a 31% faster recovery time than those who received a placebo.
While not a "knock out," NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci said at an Oval Office meeting Wednesday the study results were "a very important proof of concept."
The NIAID study involved 1,063 hospitalized COVID-19 patients whose lungs were affected. A subset of about half those patients who got remdisivir had a median recovery time of 11 days while patients who got a placebo had a median recovery time of 15 days. Recovery was defined as being well enough to be discharged from the hospital or able to return to normal levels of activity.
The patients given remdesivir also had a lower mortality rate – 8% of them died compared with 11.6% of the placebo group. But researchers said we don't have enough data to know if that number is statistically significant.
Study out of China was less positive
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial at 10 hospitals in Wuhan, China, found no statistically significant difference in how quickly patients improved, according to the study published in The Lancet.
Though a higher number of patients receiving remdesivir showed a faster time to clinical improvement the numbers weren't enough to be more than chance.
'Drawing any conclusions at this point is premature'
Last week, early data from a Chinese study was prematurely posted then removed from a World Health Organization website. It did not appear to show any difference in outcomes between patients who got the drug and patients who didn’t.
Another study not yet been peer-reviewed found patients on a 10-day remdesivir treatment plan and a five-day treatment plan showed "similar improvement." Gilead said.
A study published April 10 in the New England Journal of Medicine found the majority of people who got the drug improved, but there was no control group.
This month, medical news site STAT reported early and incomplete results from a remdesivir study being conducted in Chicago. The University of Chicago issued a statement saying that “drawing any conclusions at this point is premature and scientifically unsound.”
Treatment options the U.S. is considering
Remdesivir is one of several drugs touted recently as possible coronavirus treatments.
Hydroxychloroquine, convalescent plasma and immuno-modulators like tocilizumab have been given to patients with COVID-19 in clinical trials, but remdesivir is the only treatment that has been shown to have even a potential effect on the disease.
Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg