Rheumatoid arthritis drug might help save hospitalized COVID-19 patients

By HealthDay News
A rheumatoid arthritis drug may help improve the condition of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, according to new research. File Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE
A rheumatoid arthritis drug may help improve the condition of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, according to new research. File Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE

As doctors around the world come up against severe cases of COVID-19, some positive news has emerged: New research shows the rheumatoid arthritis drug baricitinib may help reduce hospitalized COVID-19 patients' risk of death.

Current standard-of-care medications aren't enough, said study co-author Dr. E. Wesley Ely, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.


"Despite treatment advances with remdesivir, dexamethasone and tocilizumab, reducing mortality among hospitalized patients remains a crucial unmet need," said Ely in a medical center news release.

The study included more than 1,500 patients on supplemental oxygen at 101 hospitals in 12 countries in Asia, Europe, North America and South America.

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The patients received either baricitinib -- which has anti-inflammatory properties -- or a placebo once a day for up to 14 days, in addition to standard of care that included dexamethasone and remdesivir, which is also known as Veklury.

The 28-day and 60-day death rates were 5% lower in the baricitinib group than in the placebo group, and the sicker patients were when enrolled in the study, the greater their reduction in risk of death. The results were published Wednesday in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal.


The study was funded by Eli Lilly and Co., which makes baricitinib.

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"Hospitalized patients with the [COVID-19] infection often develop an intense hyper-inflammatory state that can lead to dysfunction of multiple organs, including acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock and death," Ely noted.

For some patients, improvement wasn't immediate, however. Ely and his colleagues were surprised to find that even though patients who received baricitinib had a reduced risk of death, some still had worsening severity of illness.

"When COVID-19 hits your body and the train is leaving the station, we did not find that this medication stopped the progress of the disease process entirely," Ely said.

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"If you were already sick, you continued to get a little sicker. The train keeps going a little bit, but adding baricitinib keeps you from going over the cliff into death," Ely said.

Baricitinib has been authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for COVID-19, with or without the drug remdesivir.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 treatments.

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