Researchers in Hong Kong have found that patients suffering milder illness caused by the new coronavirus recover more quickly if they are treated with a three-drug antiviral cocktail soon after symptoms appear.
The small trial, which involved 127 patients, compared those given the combination drug – made up of the anti-HIV therapy lopinavir-ritonavir, the hepatitis drug ribavirin and the multiple sclerosis treatment interferon-beta – with a control group given just lopinavir-ritonavir.
The findings, published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday, showed that, on average, people who got the triple-drug reached the point of no detectable virus five days earlier than those in the control group – at seven days versus 12 days.
“Our trial demonstrates that early treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 with a triple combination of antiviral drugs may rapidly suppress the amount of virus in a patient’s body, relieve symptoms, and reduce the risk to health-care workers,” said Kwok-Yung Yuen, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who coled the research.
He said the lower risk to healthcare workers would be due to the combination drug’s effect in reducing “viral shedding” – which is when the virus is detectable and potentially transmissible.
The study was carried out between February 10 and March 20 in Hong Kong, where everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is admitted to hospital.
The authors conceded several limitations with the trial, including that it was “open label” – people knew which drugs they were taking and there was no placebo.
In the trial, all patients received standard hospital care as needed, including ventilation support, dialysis support, antibiotics and corticosteroids.
Yuen said the findings were “encouraging”, but that the triple-drug’s effect now needed to be tested in larger numbers of patients and in people with more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Scientists are racing to identify effective medicines to use against the new coronavirus, but there is currently no treatment, cure or vaccine.
Independent experts agreed that the findings were positive, but said larger and more detailed studies would be needed.
This “justifies the consideration of adding interferon beta to the list of genuinely, evidence-based, promising treatments to be tested in further randomised trials,” said Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
He said long years of experience in treating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS have shown that it is best treated with combinations of different drugs “and this could also be the case with COVID-19”.