The latest science behind the Covid-19 “cures”

By Stuff reporter

The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination | Report from Stuff

Remember hydroxychloroquine - the anti-malaria drug hyped by Donald Trump as a Covid-19 treatment that could be “one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine”?

Yet here we are, more than a year later, with a pandemic still raging and the World Health Organisation (WHO) strongly recommending against using hydroxychloroquine in any Covid-19 patients.

Since Covid was first reported in December 2019, scientists have tested scores of existing drugs in the hope of finding the key to beating back the rampant coronavirus. The major benefit being that existing treatments have already undergone the long and arduous drug approval process.

It’s not a crazy idea - researchers have found drugs developed for everything from diabetes to alcoholism might work against cancers. But studies so far have not found a magic bullet cure for Covid-19. 

The disappointments have been many - HIV drug lopinavir/ritonavir, and antibiotic azithromycin have been rejected as having little effect. Studies into the experimental Ebola drug remdesivir have produced conflicting results.

There have been some wins. Systemic corticosteroids designed to reduce inflammation do help prevent death in severe cases of Covid-19. (They’re not recommended for mild cases.)

Interleukin-6 receptor blockers - usually used to treat rheumatoid arthritis - have also been added to WHO’s list of strongly recommended treatments for severely ill patients. Research found they could prevent up to 28 deaths for every thousand critically ill patients.

Research is also continuing into monoclonal antibodies, which aim to mimic the immune system’s natural response.

One drug still being touted by some as a miracle cure is ivermectin - a drug often used to treat or prevent parasites in animals. In New Zealand, it’s approved by Medsafe to treat some parasitic worm infections in humans, and as an alternative treatment for scabies. 

The jury is still out on ivermectin’s potential against Covid-19. An analysis of existing studies found ivermectin could reduce deaths and - if used early in the infection - might reduce the number of cases progressing to severe disease. However, one study that contributed to that conclusion has since been withdrawn.

Scientists from Oxford University have also urged caution. The researchers undertaking a new ivermectin trial say though earlier studies produced some "promising" results, they were small, observational studies.

The researchers will study ivermectin as part of the Principle Trial. That’s the world’s largest clinical trial of possible Covid-19 treatments, which has previously dashed hopes that antibiotic azithromycin would be a game-changer.

For now, WHO does not recommend taking ivermectin, except as part of a clinical trial.

Which means the best hope for keeping Kiwis out of hospitals and the morgue continues to be vaccination. 

And even if there was a good treatment, why wait until severe symptoms take hold, when we know vaccination prevents them in about nine out of ten people? 

Antibiotics, for example, are incredibly effective against bacterial disease. But anyone who has experienced an excruciating urinary tract infection, wheezed through a chest infection or had a burning, itchy inflamed wound knows prevention is better than cure.

Reporting disclosure statement: This post was reviewed by The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination expert panel member Professor David Murdoch, clinical microbiologist and infectious diseases expert.