UT Health San Antonio Pediatric Oncologist Gregory Aune.
UT Health San Antonio was approved to participate in the trial in early March and began enrolling patients on March 26 through a partnership with University Hospital. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Preliminary results from a clinical trial being conducted in San Antonio and elsewhere show that an experimental treatment prompts faster recovery from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a statement on Wednesday, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is sponsoring the international study, said patients who received the drug remdesivir recovered faster than patients with similar symptoms who received placebo.

While the results are preliminary, NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said the study, which includes data from more than 1,000 patients from multiple sites around the world – including UT Health San Antonio and Brooke Army Medical Center – showed that patients taking remdesivir had a shorter time to recovery, an average of 11 days, while patients taking a placebo recovered in 15 days.

“Remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery,” Fauci said. “Although a 31 percent improvement doesn’t seem like a knockout 100 percent, it is a very important proof of concept.”

In addition to faster recovery, the mortality rate for those taking remdesivir was 8 percent, compared with 11 percent for those in the placebo group, according to the NIAID.

While the study results have yet to be peer-reviewed or formally published, the National Institutes of Health released them after an analysis by the data safety monitoring board overseeing the trial. Fauci said the results were announced because of the ethical responsibility to allow the placebo group to access remdesivir, since there was now clear evidence that the drug works.

Dr. Thomas Patterson, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at UT Health San Antonio who is overseeing the local enrollment site for patients receiving treatment, said researchers are “thrilled that the drug is showing such good results so early.”

Having an effective treatment could have a profound effect on the global pandemic, especially because health officials say any vaccine against COVID-19, is at least a year away, Patterson said.

Originally designed by California-based Gilead Sciences Inc. as a drug to treat ebola, remdesivir also has been tested in animals in studies of the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which are caused by other coronaviruses, according to NIH officials.

The global trial evaluating whether remdesivir is effective in treating COVID-19 enrolled its first participants on Feb. 17 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. It is the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for the infectious disease.

UT Health San Antonio was approved to participate in the trial in early March and began enrolling patients on March 26 through a partnership with University Hospital.

Patterson said the University Hospital study site is only enrolling coronavirus patients over the age of 17 who require hospitalization, rather than the majority of people who develop milder symptoms from the virus, because those people are at the highest risk of serious complications or death.

The drug is given through an intravenous drip and is designed to interfere with the virus’ ability to copy its genetic material. For purposes of the study, recovery from COVID-19 is defined as being well enough to discharge from the hospital or returning to normal activities.

“What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus,” Fauci said. “This will be the standard of care.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.