U.S. health regulators have granted emergency use authorization to a drug to help severely ill COVID-19 patients.
On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved tocilizumab, sold under the brand name Actemra, which is manufactured by Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland.
The medication has anti-inflammatory properties that scientists believe can control the immune system’s overreaction to the virus.
Previous studies have found that patients given doses of the drug cut their risk of dying in half in comparison with those who didn’t receive the therapy.
Under the FDA’s authorization, Actemra will be given to hospitalized patients who are already receiving steroid drugs, oxygen and other measures to fight COVID-19.
On Thursday, the FDA approved tocilizumab, sold under the brand name Actemra (above), which is manufactured by Roche, to treat COVID-19 patients
It will be given to hospitalized patients who are already receiving steroid drugs, oxygen and other measures to fight the virus. Pictured: Roche headquarters in Basel, Switzerland
Actemra is traditionally used as a drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis and works by combatting inflammation.
But is also belongs to a class of drugs called interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitors that could help mitigate a dangerous overreaction to the virus by the body’s immune system called a cytokine storm.
These so-called storms occur when the body doesn’t just fight off the virus but also attacks its own cells and tissues.
In cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, cytokine storms can trigger respiratory distress, which can lead to multi-system organ failure and death.
In one study, published on pre-print site medRxiv.org in June 2020, a team looked at 154 intubated patients at Michigan Medicine.
Seventy-eight of the patients were given Actemra and the remaining 76 did not receive the treatment.
Results showed that patients who received the arthritis drug had a 45 percent lower likelihood of death.
The researchers note however that the group receiving treatment was younger and less likely to be suffering from underlying pulmonary disease.
However, the activity of blocking IL-6 lead to a greater risk of infections, with 54 percent of the treatment group developing a further bacterial lung infection, also known as a superinfection.
Superinfections often occur after previously infected cells get infected with a different strain of the virus, or another virus.
They also occur after a round of antibiotic treatment reduces the body’s natural microbiome, allowing new pathogens to grow and cause a new infection.
Luckily, superinfections did not increase the risk of death in these patients.
One month earlier, a study from Paris Public Hospitals showed that patients given the arthritis drug were less likely to die and less likely to need life support in comparison with a control group.
The FDA has cleared several antibody drugs for COVID-19 but there has been low demand because of the hurdles of delivering them via IV at hospitals or clinics.
Health officials have emphasized the need to develop more pill-based drugs for COVID-19.