According to the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, treatment with the drug interferon(IFN)- a2b may significantly accelerate virus clearance and reduce levels of inflammatory proteins in Covid-19 patients.
The scientists, including those from the University of Toronto in Canada, found that treatment with this drug which has been in clinical use for many years, significantly reduced the duration of detectable virus in the upper respiratory tract on average by about 7 days.
They said it also reduced blood levels of the immune system molecules interleukin(IL)-6, and C-reactive protein (CRP), which are involved in the inflammatory response to the viral infection in patients.
“Rather than developing a virus-specific antiviral for each new virus outbreak, I would argue that we should consider interferons as the ‘first responders’ in terms of treatment,” said Eleanor Fish, study lead author from the Uni9versity of Toronto.
“Interferons have been approved for clinical use for many years, so the strategy would be to ‘repurpose’ them for severe acute virus infections,” Fish said.
She explained that interferons are a group of proteins released by the human body in response to all viruses.
They are signalling molecules which help in communication between cells and tissues, and are the “first line of defense,” Fish added.
Interferons, the study noted, work by targeting the different stages of a virus’ life cycle, inhibiting them from multiplying, and also boost an ongoing immune response to pathogens by activating different immune cells to clear the infection.
However, the scientists said, some viruses can block this natural defense mechanism.
“But it is possible to override this block. If a virus blocks interferon production, then treating with interferon can offset this,” Fish said.
In the current study, the researchers assessed the effectiveness of the drug in a group of 77 patients with Covid-19 in Wuhan, China.
They said the patients were admitted to Union Hospital, Tongii Medical College in China between January 16 and February 20, 2020, and represented moderate cases of the disease.
None of the patients required intensive care or prolonged oxygen supplementation or intubation, the study noted.
Despite the study’s limitations of a small, non-randomised group of patients, the researchers believe that the work provides several important and novel insights into Covid-19 disease.
They said the treatment with IFN-a2b can accelerate viral clearance from the upper respiratory tract and also reduce circulating levels of inflammatory factors that are associated with severe Covid-19.
According to Fish, a randomised clinical trial is a crucial next step.
She said the findings are the first to suggest therapeutic efficacy of IFN-a2b as an available antiviral intervention for Covid-19, which may also benefit public health measures by shortening the duration of viral clearance.