There may be no vaccine yet for the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. But scientists are now testing both existing and experimental therapies to see if any are effective in treating the new coronavirus.
Among the drugs being tested are new and existing antiviral therapies. And one candidate that’s showing promise is a drug that’s been in use for more than a half-century
The drug, chloroquine phosphate, was originally developed to fight malaria.
“It’s also been shown to be very effective in treating patients who have autoimmune diseases like lupus,” said Edmond resident Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of Clinical Affairs at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF). “We use it to treat hundreds of lupus patients at OMRF.”
In China, researchers tested the drug in a multicenter clinical trial to treat pneumonia associated with COVID-19. Preliminary results indicate that the drug appears to show some efficacy as a therapy.
Scientifically, said OMRF’s James, it would make sense that an anti-malarial drug might also fight an infection caused by a coronavirus.
“When malaria gets inside a cell, if you change the pH with a drug like chloroquine phosphate, the malaria can’t live,” said James, an immunologist and rheumatologist. “The same goes for a virus like COVID-19. If you change the pH, the virus cannot assemble, and if it can’t assemble, it can’t infect you.”
James explained that repurposing existing medications is often the fastest path to treating those infected by the virus in a novel way.
“That would be really exciting, because it’s a drug that already has FDA approval, and it is readily available,” she said. “If it works, it might treat COVID-19 almost instantly.”
Wider studies are now underway to confirm the results.
In the meantime, James and health officials at the CDC are warning against using unapproved medications claiming to treat or prevent COVID-19. She also cautioned that antibiotics will not work for coronavirus, either.
“Antibiotics are used to fight bacterial infection. It’s great if you get strep throat or have a staph infection, but COVID-19 is a virus, and viruses are not attacked or slowed in any way by antibiotics,” James said.
For patients who develop mild symptoms, doctors recommend resting, staying hydrated and using over-the-counter medications and pain relievers as needed. More severe cases often require hospitalization, with oxygen therapy to help breathing.
If you or a loved one develops severe symptoms, James said, “Be sure to call your healthcare provider before you go. That will help them prepare for your visit and prevent others from being infected.”