World Health Organization says remdesivir does not help coronavirus patients

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A large study led by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests the antiviral drug remdesivir did not help hospitalised COVID-19 patients, in contrast to an earlier study that made the medicine a standard of care in the United States and many other countries.

The results do not negate the previous ones, and the WHO study was not as rigorous as the earlier one led by the US National Institutes of Health.

But they add to concerns about how much value the pricey drug gives because none of the studies have found it can improve the chances of survival.

The drug has not been approved for COVID-19 patients in the US, but it was authorised for emergency use after the previous study found it shortened recovery time by five days on average.

It is approved for use against COVID-19 in the United Kingdom and Europe, and is among the treatments US President Donald Trump received when he was infected earlier this month.

The WHO study involved more than 11,000 patients in 30 countries.

About 2,750 were randomly assigned to get remdesivir.

The rest got either the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, the immune-system booster interferon, the antiviral combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, or just usual care.

The other drugs have largely been ruled out for COVID-19 by previous studies, but not remdesivir.

Death rates after 28 days, the need for breathing machines and time in the hospital were relatively similar for those given remdesivir versus usual care.

The results have not been published in a journal or reviewed by independent scientists, but were posted on a site researchers use to share results quickly.

The WHO study tested 10 days of remdesivir, so some patients may have been hospitalised longer than they needed to be just to finish treatment, making their length of stay look bad in comparison to others getting usual care.

Remdesivir’s maker, Gilead Sciences, said in a statement that the results were inconsistent with more rigorous studies and have not been fully reviewed or published.

Leading infectious diseases expert Sharon Lewin is the director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

She is also a Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Lewin said the peer-review process could take more than two weeks.

“To be honest there’s no real surprises here,” she said, when it comes to remdesivir, adding WHO’s results confirm what experts had already expected,” she said.

Professor Lewin said antiviral drugs may not play a big role in the second or third week of infection, because the virus diminishes over time.

But as for WHO’s trial results, she said it was important to consider, “does it support a bigger body of work?”

“We have to look at what else is out there in terms of studies and results. It’s a question of the robustness of statistical analysis,” she said.

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