Could Interferon Drugs Help Fight COVID-19?

FRIDAY, May 15, 2020 (HealthDay News) — In the race to find treatments for COVID-19, the antiviral drug remdesivir has gotten much of the attention. But researchers say a class of long-used drugs called interferons also looks promising.

Trials testing the medications are underway in several countries. A small study published last week in The Lancet found that a three-drug regimen, containing an interferon, helped hospitalized COVID-19 patients go home a few days sooner.

But there should be a bigger research push to test interferons as stand-alone treatments, said Eleanor Fish, a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto in Canada.

In Wuhan, China, where the pandemic originated, doctors used the drug interferon alfa-2b to treat some hospitalized patients who were not yet sick enough to need a ventilator.

On average, the tactic helped the patients’ immune systems clear the coronavirus faster. It also seemed to reduce certain inflammatory proteins linked to severe COVID-19 complications.

Fish and her colleagues describe the results, from 77 patients, in the May 15 issue of Frontiers in Immunology.

Interferons are proteins the body produces as part of its natural defenses. They sound the alarm that a foreign invader is present, kicking the immune system into high gear.

Interferon drugs are lab-made versions of those proteins. They work with the immune system, and also have direct antiviral effects, Fish said. Doctors have used the medications for years to treat conditions like the liver infection hepatitis C, certain cancers and multiple sclerosis.

Interferons are being studied for COVID-19, in part, because they are “broad-spectrum” antiviral drugs, meaning they are not directed at only one kind of virus. There is also precedent for using them to battle severe coronavirus infection, Fish said. During the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in Toronto, she and her colleagues found that interferon-alfa helped hospitalized patients, by speeding resolution of their lung abnormalities.

To Fish, either interferon-alfa or -beta could be effective in managing COVID-19. But, she argued, researchers should focus on studying the drugs as solo treatments, unlike the recent Lancet trial.

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