(Bloomberg) -- A pair of arthritis medicines, including Roche Holding AG’s Actemra, reduced mortality and shortened recovery times in intensive care for Covid-19 patients in a study, opening the possibility of another treatment option for the severely ill.
Some 27% of critically ill patients who got the arthritis drugs in the study died in the hospital, compared with about 36% of those who didn’t get them, an Imperial College London research team said. Patients who got the Roche treatment or Kevzara, a similar medicine from Sanofi and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., were able to be released from the hospital an average of a week earlier, the study found.
The findings could have “immediate implications for the sickest patients with Covid-19,” Anthony Gordon, chair in anesthesia and critical care at Imperial, said in a statement. Released in a preprint on Thursday, the results have not yet been peer-reviewed.
The study also raised hopes in the U.K., which helped fund the research, that using the arthritis medicines will ease the strain as a surge of virus cases swamps its health system. The government will encourage the use of Actemra across the country immediately and is working with Roche to ensure the medicine is available to U.K. patients, the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.
Though drug companies have tested a range of existing treatments against Covid-19, few have proven helpful. The biggest success so far has been dexamethasone, a steroid that has been shown to reduce the risk of death by one-third for patients on ventilators.
‘Bit of Optimism’
Thursday’s results “injected that bit of optimism we all need” to keep trying with arthritis medicines as well, Martin Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
Landray helps lead another large study, called Recovery, that helped pinpoint the benefit of dexamethasone and is looking at Roche’s Actemra as well. Still to be answered are questions of how well the drug works in different types of patients and whether, if given earlier, it might reduce the need for ventilators in the first place, Landray said.
Roche will also continue its own studies on Actemra in Covid-19, the Swiss drugmaker said in a statement.
In previous studies, Actemra had reduced the need for patients to be ventilated and appeared to help them leave hospitals earlier. Yet, puzzlingly, the drug hadn’t appeared to help reduce deaths. The earlier studies enrolled people who were less sick, Gordon said. “A crucial difference may be that in our study, critically ill patients were enrolled within 24 hours of starting organ support,” he said.
After a trial with Kevzara failed in September, Sanofi and Regeneron had said they wouldn’t pursue the drug further for use in Covid-19.
Called REMAP-CAP, the trial reported Thursday assigned patients randomly to a range of potential Covid-19 treatments. It has enrolled more than 3,900 patients, most of them in the U.K., though only a portion of those people got the arthritis treatments. Roche’s Actemra was given to 350 patients, while 45 patients got Kevzara.
(Updates with other medicines in fifth paragraph, outside comment in the sixth)