First trial for potential Covid-19 drug shows it has no effect

WHO draft put online states remdesivir does not benefit severe coronavirus patients

Coronavirus latest: at a glance

Remdesivir, a drug thought to be one of the best prospects for treating Covid-19, failed to have any effect in the first full trial, it has been revealed.

The drug is in short supply globally because of the excitement it has generated. It is one of the drugs Donald Trump claimed was “promising”.

In a “gold standard” trial of 237 patients, some of whom received remdesivir while others did not, the drug did not work.

News of the failure was posted on a World Health Organization clinical trials database, but later removed. A WHO spokesman said it had been uploaded too soon by accident.

“A draft document was provided by the authors to WHO and inadvertently posted on the website and taken down as soon as the mistake was noticed. The manuscript is undergoing peer review and we are waiting for a final version before WHO comments,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesperson.

The drug, made by the US company Gilead Sciences, is an antiviral that was trialled in Ebola, but which failed to show benefits in Africa.

In the race for drugs that might work against Covid-19, many doctors have given remdesivir to patients on “compassionate grounds” without waiting for trials. Because of the interest in it, the world’s biggest trial of possible treatments for Covid-19 at Oxford has not been able to include it, because researchers could not obtain supplies.

The trial of the drug in China, on patients with severe Covid-19 symptoms, may give some doctors pause. Gilead, however, claimed there were still signs that it could be useful, possibly in patients with milder versions of disease.

In the trial, 158 patients were randomly assigned to be given remdesivir, while 79 others had standard care with a placebo instead. There was no difference between the groups with respect to recovery time. Just under 14% of those on remdesivir died, compared with nearly 13% of those not taking the treatment.

“In this study of hospitalised adult patients with severe Covid-19, [which] was terminated prematurely, remdesivir was not associated with clinical or virological benefits,” said the report on the WHO website.

The report added: “Remdesivir was stopped early in 18 (11.6%) patients because of adverse effects, compared with 4 (5.1%) in the control group.” There were no details in the short report of the side effects.

Just a week ago, it emerged that researchers in Chicago were excited by the results of a Gilead-run trial of remdesivir in 125 patients. Nearly all those people were discharged within a week, according to STAT News, which follows the pharmaceutical industry. However, there was no placebo group, which meant researchers could not be sure that it was the drug that made the difference, and not something else.

Remdesivir is one of a handful of drugs that have been enthusiastically backed by doctors and politicians as potential cures for Covid-19. There has also been a rush to give patients hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic version of the antimalarial chloroquine. That has led to shortages for people who need to take it for lupus, a disease that affects the immune system.

Scientists who want to see proper trials conducted are likely to point to the remdesivir trial failure as strong evidence of the dangers of giving out even tested drugs on compassionate grounds for a disease that is so novel.

• This article was amended on 30 April 2020. An earlier version said that the remdesivir trial had been stopped early because of side-effects. Although some patients were taken off the drug because of side-effects, it was stopped early because they did not recruit enough patients.


Sarah Boseley Health editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Remdesivir drug to be available for selected NHS Covid-19 patients
Drug pioneered for Ebola to be used in UK under emergency medicines provision

Nicola Davis

26, May, 2020 @5:46 PM

Article image
Remdesivir has very little effect on Covid-19 mortality, WHO finds
Results of major trial described as sobering, with drug found not to improve survival rates

Sarah Boseley Health editor

16, Oct, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Scientists report flaws in WHO-funded study on 2-metre distancing
Mistakes mean findings should not be used as evidence for relaxing rule, say professors

Ian Sample Science editor

14, Jun, 2020 @3:07 PM

Article image
US stays away as world leaders agree action on Covid-19 vaccine
Video meeting seen as global endorsement of WHO and sign of Trump’s isolation on world stage

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

24, Apr, 2020 @4:55 PM

Article image
Asthma drug may reduce risk of severe Covid if taken early – study
Inhaled budesonide could become first treatment in early stages of infection if study confirmed

Linda Geddes

10, Feb, 2021 @7:10 PM

Article image
WHO team says theory Covid began in Wuhan lab ‘extremely unlikely’
Theories including virus jumping from animal to human or via frozen food being explored by team in China

Helen Davidson in Taipei

09, Feb, 2021 @2:28 PM

Article image
Surgisphere: governments and WHO changed Covid-19 policy based on suspect data from tiny US company
Surgisphere, whose employees appear to include a sci-fi writer and adult content model, provided database behind Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine hydroxychloroquine studies

Melissa Davey in Melbourne and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington and Sarah Boseley in London

03, Jun, 2020 @6:47 PM

Article image
Dexamethasone: low-cost drug helps prevent deaths of sickest coronavirus patients
Trial shows dexamethasone responsible for survival of one in eight patients on ventilators

Sarah Boseley Health editor

17, Jun, 2020 @9:43 AM

Article image
Nottinghamshire woman, 75, may be first known UK Covid victim
Scientific analysis suggests coronavirus was spreading in UK weeks earlier than thought

Amy Walker

25, Aug, 2020 @5:54 PM

Article image
UK Covid booster not necessary for all, says Oxford jab scientist Sarah Gilbert
Gilbert suggests extra doses should go instead to countries with low vaccination rates

Jamie Grierson

10, Sep, 2021 @7:25 AM