Washington: Desperate to solve the deadly conundrum of COVID-19, the world is clamouring for fast answers and solutions from a research system not built for haste.
The ironic, and perhaps tragic, result: Scientific shortcuts have slowed understanding of the disease and delayed the ability to find out which drugs help, hurt or have no effect at all.
As deaths from coronavirus relentlessly mounted into the hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of doctors and patients rushed to use drugs before they could be proved safe or effective. A slew of low-quality studies clouded the picture even more.
“People had an epidemic in front of them and were not prepared to wait,” said Dr Derek Angus, critical care chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre. “We made traditional clinical research look so slow and cumbersome,” he added.
It wasn’t until mid-June – nearly six months into the pandemic – when the first evidence came that a drug could improve survival. Researchers in the United Kingdom managed to enroll one of every six hospitalised COVID-19 patients into a large study that found a cheap steroid called ‘dexamethasone’ helps and that a widely used malaria drug does not. The study changed practice overnight, even though results had not been published or reviewed by other scientists.
In the United States, a smaller but rigorous study found a different drug can shorten recovery time for seriously ill patients, but many questions remain about its best use.
Doctors are still frantically reaching for anything else that might fight the many ways the virus can do harm, experimenting with medicines for stroke, heartburn, blood clots, gout, depression, inflammation, AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, arthritis and even stem cells and radiation.
“Everyone has been kind of grasping for anything that might work. And that’s not how you develop sound medical practice,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic researcher and frequent adviser to the US Food and Drug Administration. “Desperation is not a strategy and it cannot be,” he added.
Few definitive studies have been done in the US, with some undermined by people getting drugs on their own or lax methods from drug companies sponsoring the work.
And politics magnified the problem. Tens of thousands of people tried a malaria medicine after President Donald Trump relentlessly promoted it, saying, ‘What have you got to lose’? Meanwhile, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, warned “I like to prove things first.”
For three months, weak studies polarized views of hydroxychloroquine until several more reliable ones found it ineffective for treatment.