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Alberta testing anti-malaria drug as early COVID-19 treatment; U of A studying Ebola drug

Alberta researchers make progress on COVID-19 treatments
WATCH ABOVE: A University of Alberta study has found an Ebola drug helps stop COVID-19 replication, while another Alberta-wide study is about to begin looking at hydroxychloroquine, which is used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Fletcher Kent looks at what these studies mean for patients.

A provincial trial is set to begin in Alberta to investigate the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, a drug normally used for treating malaria, as a potential treatment for COVID-19. 

It will aim to see if the drug could help people most at risk of severe symptoms from the novel coronavirus.

The Alberta Hope COVID-19 study will recruit 1,600 at-risk Albertans to determine whether taking a five-day treatment of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) lowers their hospitalization rates.

“We will be targeting Albertans who are at risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19,” University of Calgary’s Dr. Luanne Metz, who is leading the study, said in a news release Monday.

“Those include people over 18, living independently, who have an underlying medical condition which has proven to contribute to the worsening of symptoms, and eventual hospitalization,” Metz said.

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Eligible trial participants will be informed by Alberta Health Services after testing for COVID-19. If approved as a participant, they will be delivered either a dose of HCQ or a placebo. Two-thirds of the participants will receive the active drug, and one-third will receive the placebo.

READ MORE: London, Ont., researchers to study hydroxychloroquine’s potential to prevent, treat coronavirus

The study is being led by the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, with support from the provincial government and AHS, among other stakeholders.

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“Clinical trials like this will give healthcare professionals more evidence to determine how best to care for patients,” Dr. Kathryn Todd with Alberta Health Services said.

Hydroxychloroquine is officially approved for treating malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Alberta testing anti-malaria drug as early COVID-19 treatment
Alberta testing anti-malaria drug as early COVID-19 treatment

“As we’ve learned from other countries, hospital systems can become overwhelmed by those infected with the virus who need critical care,” Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said.

“Our goal is to reduce the risk of severe disease experienced by individuals and reduce the burden on the health-care system by helping people recover from the effects of the virus at home.”

The Alberta trial will be funded by a consortium, including a $280,000 grant from the provincial government. The study is anticipated to begin recruiting participants on April 15, with researchers hoping to have results by the end of summer.

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University of Alberta also studying Ebola drug

The University of Alberta also announced Monday that its researchers have found that remdesivir, a drug used to treat Ebola, is effective in stopping the replication mechanism of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The research, which was led by the U of A’s Dr. Matthias Götte, was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Monday.

Scientists at the university were testing the theory that remdesivir could treat COVID-19, after a February study they also published saw the drug could treat MERS, a related coronavirus.

“We obtained almost identical results as we reported previously with MERS, so we see that remdesivir is a very potent inhibitor for coronavirus polymerases,” Götte said.

In the paper, Götte likens the polymerase to the engine of the virus, responsible for synthesizing its genome.

“If you target the polymerase, the virus cannot spread, so it’s a very logical target for treatment,” Götte said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Drug trial sees ‘encouraging’ results but researchers say more study needed

The lab’s work shows how remdesivir tricks the virus and mimics its building blocks.

“These coronavirus polymerases are sloppy and they get fooled, so the inhibitor gets incorporated many times and the virus can no longer replicate,” Götte explained.

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Götte said that while the lab results are promising, clinical trials are necessary to test its effectiveness. Remdesivir is currently undergoing some human trials around the world.

“We’ve got to be patient and wait for the results of the randomized clinical trials,” Götte said. 

The research was funded by Alberta’s Major Innovation Fund, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Gilead Sciences, which manufactures remdesivir.

Remdesivir is one of several drugs being fast-tracked into trials by the World Health Organization, as a potential treatment for patients hospitalized with COVID-19.