As COVID-19 cases mounted in Texas in late June, a local Houston news station shadowed Joseph Varon, MD, making rounds in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. An unseen newscaster tells viewers that Varon credits his success against COVID-19 so far to an experimental and “controversial” drug protocol consisting of vitamins, steroids, and blood thinners.
“This is war. There’s no time to double-blind anything,” Varon tells the camera. “This is working. And if it’s working, I’m going to keep on doing it.”
But response to the protocol among other critical care physicians is mixed, with several physicians, in interviews with Medscape Medical News, urging caution because the benefits and relative risks of the combined medications have not been tested in randomized control trials.
From the earliest days of the pandemic, there’s been tension between the need for rigorous scientific study to understand a novel disease, which takes time, and the need to treat seriously ill patients immediately. Some treatments, like hydroxychloroquine, were promoted without randomized clinical trial data and then later were shown to be ineffective or even potentially harmful when tested.
“This pandemic has shown us there’s lots of ideas out there and they need to be tested and a theoretical basis is insufficient,” says Daniel Kaul, MD, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The ups and downs with hydroxychloroquine offer a sobering example, he says. “I would argue we have an ethical obligation to do randomized controlled trials to see if our treatments work.”
MATH+ stands for methylprednisolone, ascorbic acid, thiamine, and heparin. The “+” holds a place for additional therapies like vitamin D, zinc, and melatonin. The protocol originated as a variation of the “HAT therapy,” a combination of hydrocortisone, ascorbic acid, and thiamine, which critical care specialist Paul Marik, MD, created for treating critically ill patients with sepsis.
Over a few weeks, the protocol evolved as Marik, chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, emailed with a small group of colleagues about treatments and their observations of SARS-CoV-2 in action, swapping in methylprednisolone and adding the anticoagulant heparin.
When Marik and colleagues created the protocol in early March, many healthcare organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) were advising against steroids for COVID-19 patients. The MATH+ physicians decided they needed to spread a different message, and began publicizing the protocol with a website and a small communications team.
Marik says they tried to get their protocol in front of healthcare organizations – including the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health – but received no response. Marik went on Newt Gingrich’s podcast to discuss the protocol in the hopes it would make its way to the White House.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin saw the protocol and invited Pierre Kory, MD, MPA, who practices in Johnson’s home state, to testify remotely in front of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Kory is a pulmonary critical care specialist about to start a new job at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.
In his testimony, Kory shared his positive experience using the protocol to treat patients and expressed his dismay that national healthcare organizations came out against the use of corticosteroids for COVID-19 from the early days of the pandemic based on what he called a “tragic error in analysis of medical data.” Although an analysis by national organizations suggested corticosteroids might be dangerous in COVID-19 patients, one of his colleagues came to the opposite conclusion, he said. But these organizations advised supportive care only, and against steroids. “We think that is a fatal and tragic flaw,” Kory said.
“The problem with the protocol early on was that it was heresy,” says Kory, referring to the protocol’s inclusion of corticosteroids before official treatment guidelines. During the height of the pandemic in New York this spring, Kory spent 5 weeks working in the ICU at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in Manhattan. Seeing patients flounder on supportive care, Kory says he used MATH+ successfully during his time in New York, using escalating and pulse doses of corticosteroids to stabilize rapidly deteriorating patients.
The website’s home page initially included an invitation for visitors to donate money to support “getting word of this effective treatment protocol out to physicians and hospitals around the world.” After Medscape Medical News brought up the donation prompt in questions, the physicians decided to remove all calls for donations from the website and social media, communications representative Betsy Ashton said. “Critics are misinterpreting this as some kind of fund-raising operation, when that could hardly be the case,” Ashton said in an email. “They are horrified that anyone would impugn their motives.”
Donations paid for the website designer, webmaster, and her work, Ashton said, and the physicians now have donors who will support publicizing the protocol without online calls for donations. “We have no commercial or vested interest,” Marik said. “I’m not going to make a single cent out of this and it’s obviously very time-consuming.”