British Columbia

B.C. hospitals taking part in massive WHO COVID-19 treatment study

B.C. hospitals are taking part in the global effort to determine which drugs, if any, prove effective in treating COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 patients at St. Paul's, Vancouver General and Victoria General can take part in drug trial

A massive global trial is underway to determine which drugs prove effective in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients and several Canadian hospitals are taking part. (NIAID Integrated Research Facility/Reuters)

B.C. hospitals are taking part in the global effort to determine which drugs, if any, prove effective in treating COVID-19 patients.

It's known as the Solidarity Trial, co-ordinated by the World Health Organization. 

"We're hoping to continually recruit [hospitalized COVID-19 patients] over the course of the outbreak around the world in one large mega-trial," said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a principal investigator with the Canadian contribution to the global trial.

So far, St. Paul's, Vancouver General and Victoria General hospitals are taking part, but others including Surrey Memorial, Lions Gate, and Royal Columbian will also get involved, according to Murthy. 

Murthy said there are 83 countries currently at different stages of approval for participation in the trial, with 700 patients enrolled worldwide. In B.C., it's still getting underway, so no patients have begun the randomized trial.

"It's probably one of the biggest clinical trials ever conducted to learn as quickly as possible, as much as possible," said Murthy.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an associate professor at the department of pediatrics in the faculty of medicine at UBC, is a principal investigator of the Canadian treatments for the COVID-19 trial, which is part of the World Health Organization's Solidarity Trial. (CBC)

He said the trial will begin with a few antiviral drugs and see which work better than others and what proved ineffective or potentially harmful.

Researchers will also look at malaria drugs like hydroxychloroquine, which has been repeatedly promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump for COVID-19, despite a lack of evidence.

"Right now, we don't know if it's effective," said Murthy, adding that there have been cases in which it appears to have caused harm. "The best way of getting that information is in a clinical trial in a monitored setting."

Murthy said the drugs in the trial have all appeared to have effects in lab-based settings on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but it's unknown if they'll work in humans.

Drugs already in use for other conditions

He said it's possible to quickly escalate human testing with the drugs, because they're all in use for other conditions, and their safety profiles have been studied.

The drugs in question are being considered for their ability to treat the disease, not prevent it. This isn't part of the effort to find a vaccine.

To participate in the trial, patients need to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and there's no established timeline for results. Murthy said they will continually look at results around the world and make changes as evidence comes in.

He also said there's no specific number of trial participants that will take part, as the trial will likely last until the pandemic is over.

"The greatest hope is that we don't have enough patients to recruit, namely there are no patients being hospitalized because we've done our job flattening that curve," said Murthy.

According to Murthy, it will likely take some time before researchers are able to show a particular drug is effective, because the benefits are expected to be relatively small. 

However, across the population and thousands of COVID-19 cases, anything will help.

"Even a small effect is a very important one," said Murthy.


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Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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