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Study: RA Drug Could Reduce Risk of COVID Deaths

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Feb. 16, 2021 -- The drug tocilizumab, which is an anti-inflammatory given in an IV to treat rheumatoid arthritis, may reduce the risk of death for patients who are hospitalized with severe COVID-19, according to a new study published as a preprint on medRxiv on Thursday.

The drug also appears to reduce the risk of being put on a ventilator and shortens the amount of time that a patient remains at the hospital, the authors wrote. The study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

“This is a treatment that reduces mortality, shortens hospital stay and reduces the chances of people needing invasive mechanical ventilators,” Martin Landray, PhD, one of the study authors and an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, told reporters during a news briefing, according to CNN.

“That’s good for patients, and that’s good for the health service,” he said. “And that’s good not only for the health service and patients here in the U.K., but internationally.”

The research is part of the RECOVERY trial at Oxford, which has been testing potential COVID-19 treatments since March 2020. Tocilizumab was added in April 2020 and tested through January 2021. As part of the drug trial, more than 2,000 patients received the anti-inflammatory drug, and 2,000 others received standard care without the drug.

Overall, 596 people died in the tocilizumab group, compared to 694 deaths in the standard care group. For every 25 patients treated with the drug, one life could be saved, the researchers said in a statement.

The research team also found that the risk of progressing to mechanical ventilation dropped from 38% to 33%, and patients in the tocilizumab group were more likely to be discharged from the hospital within 28 days.

About 82% of the patients also took dexamethasone, a steroid that the RECOVERY trial found also reduces deaths from severe COVID-19. After the findings came out in June 2020, dexamethasone became part of the standard care plan for patients with severe COVID-19. Now the research team is recommending that hospitalized patients receive both dexamethasone and tocilizumab to reduce COVID-19 deaths.

“As hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 surge across the world and the new strains make the pandemic more challenging, finding effective treatments is more urgent than ever,” Nick Cammack, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator lead at the Wellcome Trust, told the Science Media Centre

“We need treatments that work across all stages of the disease -- from mild to severe,” he said. “We must keep up the rapid pace of research, continuing to invest in large-scale clinical trials like RECOVERY that can provide the world with definitive answers.”

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