A drug more usually used for treating arthritis has been found to be effective in helping combat COVID-19.
Early results suggest Tocilizumab, a medicine that suppresses the immune system and reduces inflammation, also improves the clinical outcomes of patients in ICU with severe COVID-19.
And while there has not yet been a study into the drug’s effect on the length of time patients need to spend in intensive care, or on the effect on overall survival rates, compared with people who did not received any immune-modulating drugs, Tocilizumab showed “promising” results.
Results from previous studies of Tocilizumab on COVID-19 patients have been mixed, with some showing benefit and others indicating the drug was not very effective.
This time, researchers studied more than 2,000 COVID-19 patients in 15 countries and tested the effects of Tocilizumab as well as other immune-modulating drugs such as Sarilumab, Anakinra and Interferon.
The analysis of those trials was led by a team from Imperial College London and included data from the first 303 patients randomised to either receive treatments such as Tocilizumab or no immune modulator.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the trial results as “fantastic news”.
He added: “I’m proud that our NHS was able to play such a significant role in this trial, with so many UK patients in intensive care units benefiting from this remarkable medicine.
“Tocilizumab is an important addition to the armoury of proven therapeutics for COVID-19, which have been discovered thanks to brilliant scientists working with the NHS, supported by the UK government.
“The UK has proven time and time again to be at the very forefront of identifying the most promising, innovative treatments for its patients and I want to thank everyone who has played a part in obtaining these hugely promising results.”
The early findings are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal but further data is expected in the coming weeks.
Professor Anthony Gordon, chairman in anaesthesia and critical care at Imperial College London and a consultant in intensive care medicine at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: “These early findings show that treatment with this immune modulating drug is effective for critically ill COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.
“When we have the results available from all participants, we hope our findings will offer clear guidance to clinicians for improving the outcomes of the sickest COVID-19 patients.”
Dr Lennie Derde, a consultant in intensive care medicine at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht, said: “This is an absolutely amazing result. To have a second effective therapy for critically ill patients within months of the start of the pandemic is unprecedented.”
But experts warn the results come from unpublished data and should be treated with caution.
Athimalaipet Ramanan, an honorary professor of paediatric rheumatology at the University of Bristol, said it is hard to make any conclusions based on the limited available data.
“Whilst promising, we need see the full manuscript of today’s results to make any firm opinion.
“Tocilizumab may be of benefit to certain patients with COVID-19, the difficulty appears to be in identifying this patient group.