Coronavirus: Kiwi research finds two more effective treatments for severe COVID-19

A potential patient is tested for COVID-19.
A potential patient is tested for COVID-19. Photo credit: Getty

A worldwide study involving researchers from New Zealand has found two drugs normally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can reduce a COVID-19 patient's chance of death by almost a quarter.

"This is a truly significant finding," said Colin McArthur, an intensive care specialist at Auckland City Hospital who led the New Zealand arm of the REMAP-CAP trial. 

The two drugs are tocilizumab and sarilumab, anti-inflammatories which work by dampening the body's natural immune response to COVID-19, stopping it from going overboard.

"In fighting the virus, the immune system can also cause damage to organs such as the lungs," said Dr McArthur. "These drugs work by stopping one of the protein signals that activate cells involved in the immune response." 

The study involved more than 5000 hospitalised COVID-19 patients around the world, including at 11 ICUs in New Zealand. Of those treated with tocilizumab or sarilumab, about 27.3 percent died compared to 35.8 percent who didn't receive the treatment, a 24 percent drop in mortality. They also spent less time on a ventilator or on organ support.

The same research - an ongoing effort to study respiratory diseases, started by Kiwi doctors in 2017 - last year found steroid treatment could reduce the chance of death by 20 percent, described as a "game-changer" at the time.

"To find a second effective treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients within a year of a global pandemic is remarkable," said Dr McArthur. 

Though the REMAP-CAP research started in New Zealand, most of its research on COVID-19 has been done overseas - there have simply been too few people here with the disease which has killed more than 2.5 million people worldwide in the past year. 

Only two Kiwi patients took part in the tocilizumab and sarilumab part of the trial, but the researchers say if there was a COVID-19 outbreak here, we'd have access to the "very latest world scientific thinking and treatment, right up to date and on the money" - perhaps preventing the kinds of mortality rates seen overseas. 

The research was published Wednesday morning in the New England Journal of Medicine