Arthritis drug may aid coronavirus fight, French doctors say

David Chazan
Medics around the world have been struggling to treat the disease - Sergei Bobylev\\TASS via Getty Images
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An arthritis drug may be a life-saving coronavirus treatment and reduce the need for patients to be placed on ventilators, according to French doctors.

The doctors administered anakinra, an anti-inflammatory drug normally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, to 52 Covid-19 patients at the Saint-Joseph public hospital in Paris between March 24 and April 6 and compared their progress with that of 44 historical coronavirus patients at the hospital who were not treated with the drug.

Thirteen (25 per cent) of the patients injected subcutaneously with anakinra either died or had to be placed on ventilators, compared with 32 patients (73 per cent) in the historical group.  

"Anakinra reduced both [the] need for invasive mechanical ventilation in the ICU and mortality among patients with severe forms of Covid-19, without serious side effects," the 17 doctors who carried out the study said in a joint article published in The Lancet.

However, perhaps mindful of ongoing international controversies over whether the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine and other drugs are effective against coronavirus, the doctors said further research was needed, adding: "Confirmation of efficacy will require controlled trials."

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Up to 30 per cent of patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 need to be placed on ventilators because they develop potentially fatal breathing difficulties, a condition known as acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with inflammation of the lungs or respiratory tract.

Doctors at Saint-Joseph said that administering anakinra appeared to reduce inflammation. Jean-Jacques Mourad, one of the authors of the study, said: "We saw that many patients we had been having difficulty treating were getting better."

Scientists are now awaiting the results of other ongoing anakinra trials.

Another French doctor, Didier Raoult, championed the unproven benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. He has become internationally famous since Donald Trump backed the drug and said he was taking it himself.

The US president's claims were called into question by an influential study published last week, which concluded that hydroxychloroquine did not help treat Covid-19 and could be dangerous, increasing the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and death.

However, more than 100 scientists and clinicians have since raised doubts about the data used for that study and called for it to be independently validated.