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SLU Doctors Use Experimental Drug To Treat COVID-19 Patients For Federal Study

The four new Illinois cases of coronavirus are all in Chicago.
Illustration By Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
The four new Illinois cases of coronavirus are all in Chicago.

Updated at 5:30 p.m., March 31 with comment from Washington University School of Medicine

St. Louis University doctors are using an experimental drug to treat hospitalized patients who test positive for COVID-19. 

The National Institutes of Health recently launched a study on remdesivir at SLU and about 60 research sites around the world. The intravenous drug has been used to treat a small number of COVID-19 patients, but there’s not enough evidence to show that any drug is an effective treatment. 

Determining whether remdesivir works could save lives, said Sarah George, an infectious disease researcher at SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development.

“People need to have the confidence if they’re taking something, or if their loved one is getting something, that it’s actually going to work,” George said. “Right now, there’s no solid data behind anything despite all the internet fuss.”

Antiviral medications can stop a virus from reproducing and spreading to other organs in the body.

“If the virus cannot replicate itself, it cannot cause harm in you and you cannot transmit it to another person. You just stop it in its tracks,” George said. 

Doctors gave remdesivir last month to seven passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. All of them survived, but scientists say it’s unclear how much the drug helped them

Remdesivir has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat any disease. Researchers previously tested it for Ebola and other coronaviruses. Biotech company Gilead Sciences announced on Saturday that it would expand patients’ access to the drug. Barnes Jewish Hospital is seeking permission from Gilead to use remdesivir for seriously ill patients, said Dr. Steven Liang, an infectious disease physician at Washington University. 

St. Louis-area patients who’ve been hospitalized for COVID-19 could qualify to be participants in the NIH study, depending on what other medical conditions they have, George said. Some patients will be given remdesivir, and others will be given a placebo to help scientists understand the drug’s effectiveness. 

The NIH study will enroll participants over the next couple of weeks, and data analysis could begin as soon as a month from now.

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Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.