An international team of researchers has shown for the first time that an antiviral drug could possibly speed up the recovery of COVID-19 patients. Although remdesivir reduced the time of illness by a few days, this claim is that by using interferon (IFN)a2b, SARS-CoV-2 virus can be cleared while levels of inflammatory proteins reduced. The research, conducted primarily in Wuhan, China, was led by Dr. Eleanor Fish, emerita scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, University Health Network and professor at University of Toronto’s Department of Immunology. Critics, however, will point out that this data is based on limited observational research, and until sufficiently amounts of valid data from randomized controlled trials are accumulated and aggregated, there is no substantial proof for IFN as a treatment for COVID-19. Note, TrialSite News has uncovered some data points that some form of IFN may in fact be in use as a treatment against COVID-19 in many countries. This needs to be substantiated.
The basis for this study was work that Dr. Fish accomplished with peers back during the Toronto SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003. During that time the Canadian led team found that IFN appeared to accelerate improvement of lung abnormalities in SARS-infected patients.
Dr. Fish commented for Reuters that “Interferons are broad-spectrum antivirals that should be considered as ‘first responders’ for all acute virus infections that are severe.” She continued, “The beauty is you don’t have to know the virus. Because they are polytrophic, they target many different facets and stages of a virus’ lifecycle and in addition, they muster and activate immune cells to help clear the virus.”
A fear associated with interferon use includes the “cytokine storm,” however Dr. Fish claims that there is no evidence of such occurrence from the work they did during the SARS outbreak in Toronto or in COVID-19 patients. In fact, Fish claims to the contrary: that the use if IFC actually reduces the inflammatory response and hence, “Fear of cytokine storm I think needs to be put to bed once and for all,” Fish proclaimed.
The Research Centers
These findings are based on a research effort in China including a number of prominent centers such as Union Hospital, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, St, Paul’s Hospital, University of British Columbia, Telethon Kids Institute, Nedlands, Toronto General Hospital Research Institute and University of Toronto.
As reported recently in Reuters, Dr. Fish commented on the study’s importance as it represents “the first compelling evidence of a potential treatment approved and we have decades of experience with.” Reported in Frontiers of Immunology, Fish and team comment that of the 77 adult COVID-19 patients treated with IFN-a2B (5 mU b.i.d), arbidol (200 mg t.i.d) or the combination of broad-spectrum antivirals, all of the patients had moderate illness and none required intensive care or oxygen supplementation or intubation.
In their published paper (preprint server here), the data analysis reveals that compared with aridol alone (27.9 days), IFN-a2B treatment, with (20.3 days) or without arbidol (21.1 day) was associated with greater viral clearance associated with the respiratory tract and reduced duration of elevated blood levels of the inflammatory markers interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein.
Dr. Fish commented to Reuters Health that with IFN-a2b, “we achieved accelerated viral clearance by about seven days, which is faster than with remdesivir, and we showed a reduction in circulating levels of inflammatory markers, which really exacerbate disease.” The team found that various material variables such as age, co-morbidities, and gender failed to negate the effects of the IFN treatment on viral clearance or as reported in Reuters, on the reduction in the inflammatory markers.
Dr. Fish acknowledges that this was an exploratory study. Hence many critics will position that no substantial claims can be made based on this research until—and only then—well designed randomized controlled trials are executed and completed. Perhaps a non-profit organization/foundation would be interested in sponsoring such an endeavor?
Another Interferon Story Associated with COVID-19
As it turns out back in March 30, TrialSite News covered an obscure story to Guyana. That South American nation had ordered a drug known as Interferon Alfa-2B from Cuba of all places. That led the research to a Newsweek article, authored by Tom O’Connor, that reported on a “wonder drug” purported to be highly in demand worldwide by at least 45 countries to anticipate COVID-19. The drug, developed by Cuba and China, was being taken around the world. According to TrialSite News research, a joint Chinese and Cuban venture called ChangHeber actually produces this variety of Interferon-based drug currently being targeted for SARS-CoV-2.
Dr. Eleanor Fish, emerita scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, University Health Network and professor at University of Toronto’s Department of Immunology