Two-thirds of severe Covid-19 cases improved on Gilead drug

The firm has given the medicine to more than 1,800 patients on a compassionate use basis

MINNEAPOLIS • Gilead Sciences Inc’s experimental drug for patients with severe Covid-19 infections showed promise in an early analysis, raising tentative hope that the first treatment for the novel virus may be on the horizon.

The report published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked 53 people in the US, Europe and Canada who needed respiratory support, with about half receiving mechanical ventilation and four on a heart-lung by-pass machine. Eight additional patients were left out of the analysis: One due to a dosing error and seven because no information was available on how they fared.

All received remdesivir drug for up to 10 days on a compassionate use basis, a programme that allows people to use unapproved medicines when no other treatment options are available. Over 18 days, 68% of the patients improved, with 17 of the 30 patients on mechanical ventilation being able to get off the breathing device. Almost half of the patients studied were ultimately discharged, while 13% died. Mortality was highest among those who were on a ventilator, with 18% of them dying.

“We cannot draw definitive conclusions from these data, but the observations from this group of hospitalised patients who received remdesivir are hopeful,” said lead author Jonathan Grein, director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, in a statement from Gilead. The Foster City, California-based company provided the medication and also helped analyse the results.

Some scientists have expressed scepticism with regard to the results.

“The data from this paper are almost uninterpretable,” Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in an emailed statement.

“There is some evidence suggesting efficacy, but we simply do not know what would have happened to these patients had they not been given the drug.” Several large scale clinical trials are underway to evaluate the benefit of remdesivir for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 1.65 million people worldwide and killed 100,000 (at press time).One that was conducted in China could report results this month. Another, sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health, has enrolled patients rapidly as the virus spread throughout the US. Gilead itself is sponsoring an additional two trials.

“In studying remdesivirthe question is not just whether it is safe and effective against Covid-19, but in which patients it shows activity, how long should they receive treatment and at what stage of their disease would treatment be most beneficial,” said Daniel O’Day, Gilead’s chairman and CEO.

There are currently no treatments proven to work specifically against the coronavirus infection. Gilead has provided the medicine to more than 1,800 patients on a compassionate use basis.

If it’s shown to be safe and effective for treating Covid-19, the medication is estimated to cost about US$9 (RM38.79) a treatment to make, said Andrew Hill, a senior visiting research fellow in the pharmacology department at Liverpool University, and colleagues in a study last Friday.

Results of controlled studies of remdesivir are highly anticipated because they will be some of the first rigorous large-scale studies completed on potential anti-coronavirus drugs. — Bloomberg