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Kiwi Researchers Lead Clinical Drug Trials to Tackle Covid-19

New Zealand researchers are leading major clinical trials to test drugs for the prevention and treatment of Covid-19.

The three trials are being led by the Medical Research Institute with almost $1 million of funding from the state-run Health Research Council of New Zealand.

The first trial will test 16 drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and steroids, on thousands of patients in intensive care with Covid-19-related pneumonia, across 15 countries.

Trial co-leader Auckland City Hospital intensive care specialist Dr Colin McArthur, said because of this country’s involvement, New Zealand patients will receive treatment that is likely to be more effective.

“It allows us to evaluate several treatments at the same time, in the same patient, combining the results from around the world, then use this to influence care for future patients, to ensure they too are more likely to receive the best treatment regime available.

“We can quickly drop treatments if they are shown to be less effective than others or worse than standard care, and add others to the study over time if need be,” Dr McArthur said.

In the second trial, the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine – hailed prematurely as a cure by the US president Donald Trump – will be given to 70 people with the virus in Wellington and Auckland who do not require hospital treatment.

The volunteer patients will be required to document their symptoms for 28 days.

Researchers are looking to see if it prevents the virus from spreading to their lungs and other organs.

This clinical trial will begin if there is an increase in the rate of Covid-19 infections in this country later in the year.

Some frontline healthworkers will receive a weekly dose of the same drug for the third trial, to see if it’s effective as a preventative treatment.

Like the second trial, it will only start if the number of cases of Covid-19 increases in New Zealand over the next few months.

Lead investigator and Wellington Hospital ICU specialist Dr Paul Young said the trial is believed to be the first of its kind.

“In Italy we’ve seen Covid-19 completely overwhelm the healthcare system, stressing how important it is for all countries to have frontline health workers fit and able to meet demand, both now and during future surges of the virus,” Dr Young said.

Medical Research Institute director Dr Richard Beasley told Nine to Noon the United States had taken “a risky approach” by using hydroxychloroquine on Covid-19 patients without any proof that it was effective.

While it had the potential to help with the treatment of Covid-19 and it was cheap, there was no evidence to show it was effective or safe, he said.

“We are not in favour of going down a pathway by taking a gamble without evidence to justify its use.

“… In the United States they have taken a gamble of promoting hydroxychloroquine as the preferred treatment without any evidence from randomised control trials that it is effective.”

He said it was a significant risk because it could have side-effects or it may be being used in the wrong dose.

Dr Beasley said none of the research work is about finding a vaccine. “At the moment we need to find evidence about treatments which we don’t currently have.”

He said close collaboration among researchers meant the three trials would be integrated – Covid-19 patients could move from one study to another depending on the severity of their conditions.

Dr Beasley said the Health Research Council funding recognised the importance of international collaboration and the need to protect frontline healthcare workers.

Some research work is being set up in Ireland where about 20 percent of healthcare workers have become infected with Covid-19. Dr Beasley said if a similar problem arose in this country, New Zealand would be well placed to help lessen the impact of the illness on those working in healthcare.

“The firm intent is that because of the international collaborations … we will have firm data that will guide management in New Zealand well before the pandemic has finished.”

The community-based study would possibly involve joining up with work already begun by Oxford University.

Dr Beasley said it was likely the institute would be involved in any of the trials from vaccines that are developed internationally. He expected this would happen within the next six to 12 months.

There is a collaboration within New Zealand, probably working in with Australian colleagues, to develop a vaccine here, he said.


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