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Could these old drugs help fight COVID-19 and save lives?


Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kirsch realized that until we have a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, we would be at the mercy of this virus. He realized that the fastest and most effective way to reduce COVID-19 fatalities would be to leverage existing drugs to treat patients at the onset of infection — before they become sick. A lack of funded research in this area prompted him to establish the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF) with the purpose of funding outpatient clinical trials of promising repurposed drugs.

Medscape spoke with CETF’s chief medical advisor, Lisa Danzig, MD, about the organization’s aim to fund promising research on repurposed drugs to treat COVID-19.

What is CETF trying to do?

Two things: save lives, and get control of this pandemic.

We are facing perhaps the greatest crisis of our lifetime. Doctors who have taken care of patients with COVID are really frustrated about not having anything to offer; they just watch patients die. We want to change that. CETF was founded to find treatments that, when given early, could improve outcomes and avoid catastrophic complications in patients suffering from COVID-19. That means reducing hospitalizations, which can reduce mortality, but it also can mean reducing viral load, and that can have a profound impact on transmission within communities. We are a funding organization — a Band-Aid. We shouldn’t exist, but we do, aiming to close gaps until a coordinated response can get set up.

Tell us about drug repurposing and why you think existing drugs might have a role in mitigating COVID-19 or slowing its transmission.

This disease has two components — the viral infection, and the immunopathology. So the two promising categories of drugs are classical antivirals (or repurposed drugs with antiviral activity), and the immunomodulators. We are mechanism-agnostic. It doesn’t matter what kind of drug it is if it keeps people out of the hospital and prevents chronic morbidity and mortality.

Repurposed drugs are sort of the low-hanging fruit of clinical drugs. The QBI Coronavirus Research Group identified 69 compounds that have theoretical activity against SARS-CoV-2, 29 of which are already FDA-approved drugs. We thought, why don’t we start testing them?

Some people might call this a long shot. Does drug repurposing really work?

Drugmakers don’t test their drugs on every disease they might be effective for. Drug repurposing can work, but if we don’t look, we definitely won’t find anything. The classic repurposed drug is Viagra, a failed hypertension drug. When the studies ended because it didn’t work, the drug company asked patients to send back the unused drugs. The women all returned the drugs, but the men didn’t. And the rest is history.

There’s a long list of potential drugs that can be repurposed, but few are being tested. The famous poster child of a repurposed drug — hydroxychloroquine — has been the subject of more than 250 clinical trials, but the others weren’t getting much attention.

The beauty of a repurposed drug is that if you can get funding and start enrolling patients, you could potentially find out fairly quickly, as early as a few months, if that drug has an antiviral effect or not. These data would help prioritize drugs to be tested in larger confirmatory studies.


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