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Doctors Experiment With Existing Medicines To Find COVID-19 Cure

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the most urgent questions right now is how long we're all going to have to wait for a vaccine for the coronavirus. A lot of public health experts think we are at least a year away. So doctors around the world are trying existing medicines that might be useful in the meantime. And that's something that NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin has been taking a look at. And she joins us now. Hi, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: Good morning. So you've been reporting on this particular experimental drug. What is it?

LUPKIN: So the drug is called remdesivir, and it's an antiviral medicine that's been given - that's given intravenously. And it's actually been around for a while, but it's never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. President Trump called remdesivir promising yesterday, and the FDA commissioner, Steven Hahn, has said that the agency is working very closely with Gilead Sciences - that's the company that makes this drug - to figure out basically if it's safe and effective as a treatment for coronavirus.

MARTIN: So why exactly do doctors think this drug might be helpful?

LUPKIN: Well, the drug was tested a few years ago to see if it worked against Ebola, which is another viral disease. But it got put on the sideline when other treatments and vaccines were developed. So remdesivir pretty much went back on the shelf until this coronavirus started sweeping through. There had been some animal tests and lab experiments that suggested it might be effective against other viruses in the same coronavirus family, namely SARS and MERS. So trying it for this new coronavirus, you know, it makes sense. Remdesivir interferes with the ability of viruses to reproduce.

MARTIN: So are they testing this thing? I mean, what's being done to figure out if it can be effective?

LUPKIN: Yeah. There are clinical trials to test the drug in COVID-19 patients, and they're going on in China, the U.S. and other countries around the world. One study is looking at how the drug affects patients' fevers and the amount of oxygen in their blood, which makes sense because when patients are having breathing trouble, their oxygen level will get too low. So that's one way to see if the drug is actually helping them to get better. Another study is focused on how many patients are well enough to leave the hospital within two weeks of starting treatment. And doctors, of course, will also be checking out side effects or problems with the drug. We don't know yet how safe the drug is for these patients. These studies are still under way. There are no final results yet. And without final results, scientists tell me that we just don't know if this really works for COVID-19.

MARTIN: Do patients have to be enrolled in clinical trials to get it?

LUPKIN: No. There is another way. It's called compassionate use. That's when the FDA allows patients - typically very sick people with just a few options - to take experimental drugs outside of a clinical study. But it only happens in special circumstances - for instance, if the patient's disease or condition is life-threatening and there are no other FDA-approved options for the patient and that patient can't already enroll in one of the clinical trials. So, of course, it's up to the company to provide the drug, and, in this case, Gilead has done that. The FDA says it's granted access to remdesivir to about 250 patients, and it's collecting that data as well to presumably help it better understand the drug.

MARTIN: So, you know, we're all just taking this a day at a time, but people are so anxious for any kind of medicine that would help abate the crisis. Do we have any sense of when this drug might be widely available?

LUPKIN: So the FDA commissioner indicated yesterday that they wanted to come to a decision on remdesivir quickly. During the AIDS epidemic, FDA approved a drug called AZT - that's the first AIDS treatment - in record time. And basically we'll just see how the FDA does this time around. We just want to make sure and the FDA has said they want to make sure it's safe before they can approve it and effective.

MARTIN: All right. OK. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin for us. Thank you. We appreciate it.

LUPKIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.