British Columbia

B.C. experimenting with malaria and Ebola medications to treat COVID-19 patients

Provincial health officer says trials are underway at at least one facility as confirmed cases province-wide rise to 884.

Provincial health officer says trials are underway inside at least one facility

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML/Reuters)

HIV and malaria medications are being used to treat patients with COVID-19 in B.C. as nearly 900 people have tested positive for the virus provincewide.

According to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, and the antiviral Remdesivir — at one point used to to treat Ebola — are currently being tested on patients inside at least one facility in B.C. Outbreaks have occurred inside 12 long-term care homes in the province.

"There has been some experimental use [of the medications] all within the protocols of the international trials that we in Canada are part of," Henry said at her latest coronavirus briefing on Saturday.

Since mid-March, the federal government has been working with international regulators to fast track clinical trials for vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says more therapeutics will be tested in the coming days and weeks as researchers look for ways to treat COVID-19 before a vaccine is produced. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

A vaccine won't be ready for up to 18 months, so researchers have been focused on using existing medications to treat COVID-19.

While some patients have been undergoing the experimental treatment, the bulk of the research in B.C. has been taking place inside labs at the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Henry said.

Touted by Trump, cautioned by Canada

Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir have been tested overseas, particularly in China, Henry said.

Early progress prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to tell a crowd of reporters that anti-malaria medications were showing "very, very encouraging early results."

President Donald Trump listens to coronavirus response co-ordinator Dr. Deborah Birx speak during a briefing on March 20. He later told reporters anti-malaria medication was showing very encouraging results for treating COVID-19 although public health officials caution citizens against taking the drugs. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Public health officials were quick to temper expectations — and urge caution — following his remarks. 

Earlier this week, Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Therese Tam urged Canadians not to take medication without the scientific evidence.

"It can be quite dangerous. These drugs are not without side effects. In fact, there are quite significant side effects," said Tam on Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is running a research network called Solidarity that has identified a "vast suite of potential drug therapies and combinations" that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19.

Tam said part of Canada's participation in the network includes making sure patients will receive drugs supported by research. 

Chief public health officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam warned Canadians that there is still no definitive scientific proof that anti-malaria medication is effective in treating COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In the U.S. and Canada, health officials have warned that hoarding hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 could hurt others, such as those who take the drug long-term to keep chronic inflammatory diseases like lupus under control.

More therapies on the way

Hydroxychloroquine is also being tested on COVID-19 patients by researchers at the University of Manitoba — a joint trial in conjunction with researchers in Alberta and Minnesota.

Other labs across Canada and the U.S. have ramped up testing on a swath of new drugs in hopes of quelling the widening outbreak.

Dr. Henry says B.C. will continue to do its part in helping determine which medications might be effective.

"Our critical care physicians are watching the data of course that's going on around the world," she said. "So there will be more use of all the potential therapeutics."

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