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Chloroquine, Plaquenil, antiviral drugs and other potential coronavirus treatments

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As COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the world, doctors and scientists are working at breakneck speed to find a cure for this novel disease. A few weeks ago, KU Leuven published an article on a potential treatment for coronavirus: an old antimalarial medicine chloroquine may have potential to impact the symptoms of coronavirus. Other promising treatments include Plaquenil, a medicine used to treat arthritis, and several antiviral drugs. The first trials for treating coronavirus with these medicines have reported encouraging early results. But how close are we really in finding a cure for coronavirus?

When can we expect a COVID-19 vaccine?

The world is waiting anxiously for a coronavirus vaccine. After all, a vaccine is the most effective way of fighting the virus. Some 35 drug pharmaceutical companies worldwide are conducting drug development programmes. Among others Pfizer and BioNTech have joined forces to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine. But although these developments are happening rapidly, the first coronavirus vaccine won’t be ready for another 18 months. Until then, the only way to prevent infection is to follow national authorities’ guidelines, which include social distancing, washing our hands regularly and coughing into our elbows.

Is the medicine chloroquine truly effective against coronavirus?

Chloroquine is traditionally used to treat malaria infection. The active ingredient chloroquine kills malaria parasites and has an anti-inflammatory effect. Chloroquine does not kill the coronavirus. So, it’s not a cure for COVID-19 but it seems to reduce the symptoms of the disease. Its effectiveness has been confirmed in experimental trials, for instance on coronavirus patients in Wuhan. In these trials, the patients recovered more quickly after being given chloroquine for a week. However, the group of trial patients was very small, so the results are not reliable. Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 20 February that there is no proof that chloroquine is an effective treatment for coronavirus at this time.

However, chloroquine’s effectiveness in treating SARS has already been established. But further testing is needed to determine whether it will be an effective and safe treatment against the new coronavirus. Laboratory experiments are being conducted as we speak. To confirm the results of these experiments, it is also necessary to carry out clinical trials in humans in accordance with official protocols. And this takes time.

Although chloroquine is the first medicine that seems to be effective at treating coronavirus, its therapeutic effect on COVID-19 has not yet been clinically validated. So far, chloroquine has only been used as an experimental treatment in people who are extremely ill. Chloroquine is not intended for treating mild cases. It also has side effects, some of which severe. But there’s not enough information yet about possible side effects to have a clear picture of overall safety. In addition, chloroquine is not suitable for everyone. That is why chloroquine is only available on prescription.

Could Plaquenil be effective against coronavirus?

Plaquenil contains hydroxychloroquine, which is related to the active ingredient chloroquine. Plaquenil is actually an antimalarial medicine but it is also used in treating Q fever. Other uses include treatment of rheumatoid arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory effect. What applies to Plaquenil also applies to chloroquine: it’s not a coronavirus medicine. Controlled trials need to be conducted to truly determine the effectiveness of Plaquenil as a treatment for COVID-19.

Is antiviral medication effective against coronavirus?

It’s a logical thought that given the fact that COVID-19 is caused by a virus, antiviral medication could be a potential remedy. Therefore, antiviral drugs developed to treat other illnesses are also being tested by scientists for their use in treating the coronavirus.

So far, remdesivir has shown the best promise. This medicine has been effective against the MERS virus in animals and is currently being used in experiments to explore its efficacy against COVID-19. Remdesivir works by blocking reproduction of the virus, which reduces the chance of severe symptoms. It is possible that remdesivir is also helpful in preventing coronavirus infection. This would mean, among other things, that medical professionals treating coronavirus patients are better protected. At present, remdesivir is only used in hospitalised patients who are severely ill.

A combination of two medicines, lopinavir and ritonavir, is also a promising candidate for treating coronavirus. These antiviral drugs are normally used to treat HIV. Animal studies have shown that these medicines can inhibit the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS. This is currently being tested to see if it’s also effective against COVID-19. Until more data is available, lopinavir/ritonavir is only available on prescription in pharmacies for the treatment of HIV infection.

There is currently no official medicine available to treat COVID-19

Although hope for treating the novel coronavirus could be on the horizon, there is no official cure for the novel coronavirus right now. There is also no preventative treatment on the market. The good news is that most people who are infected with COVID-19 have mild flu-like symptoms that can be alleviated with cough syrup, nasal sprays and painkillers such as paracetamol.

Vulnerable people, such as people with pre-existing health problems (e.g. diabetes or cardiovascular diseases) and older people, are at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. Therefore, it is very important to follow the directions of the authorities in order to protect yourself and the people around you.

How do you know whether you are infected with COVID-19?

The only way to know for sure if you’re infected with the coronavirus is through a laboratory-conducted test. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of testing kits worldwide. In various European countries there are tests available that can be used to test for the presence of a virus. But these tests do not specifically detect the coronavirus. If you test positive, it is extremely important that you adhere to recommendations from health and government officials, especially if you have symptoms that could be suspected to be COVID-19.

Typical COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Common cold symptoms (sneezing, coughing, headache, sore throat).
  • Fever.
  • Chest tightness or shortness of breath.

Most people infected with coronavirus have mild symptoms. If you have more serious symptoms such as high fever or breathing problems, be sure to seek medical help.

Take good care of yourself and the people around you!

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