Triple Antiviral Combo May Speed COVID-19 Recovery

Neil Osterweil

May 11, 2020

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A triple-antiviral therapy regimen of interferon-beta1, lopinavir/ritonavir, and ribavirin shortened median time to COVID-19 viral negativity by 5 days in a small trial from Hong Kong.

In an open-label, randomized phase 2 trial in patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 infections, the median time to viral negativity by nasopharyngeal swab was 7 days for 86 patients assigned to receive a 14-day course of lopinavir 400 mg and ritonavir 100 mg every 12 hours, ribavirin 400 mg every 12 hours, and three doses of 8 million international units of interferon beta-1b on alternate days, compared with a median time to negativity of 12 days for patients treated with lopinavir/ritonavir alone (P = .0010), wrote Ivan Fan-Ngai Hung, MD, from Gleaneagles Hospital in Hong Kong, and colleagues.

"Triple-antiviral therapy with interferon beta-1b, lopinavir/ritonavir, and ribavirin were safe and superior to lopinavir/ritonavir alone in shortening virus shedding, alleviating symptoms, and facilitating discharge of patients with mild to moderate COVID-19," they wrote in a study published online in The Lancet.

Patients who received the combination also had significantly shorter time to complete alleviation of symptoms as assessed by a National Early Warning Score 2 (NEWS2, a system for detecting clinical deterioration in patients with acute illnesses) score of 0 (4 vs. 8 days, respectively; hazard ratio 3.92, P < .0001), and to a Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score of 0 (3 vs. 8 days, HR 1.89, P = .041).

The median hospital stay was 9 days for patients treated with the combination, compared with 14.5 days for controls (HR 2.72, P = .016).

In most patients treated with the combination, SARS-CoV-2 viral load was effectively suppressed in all clinical specimens, including nasopharyngeal swabs, throat and posterior oropharyngeal saliva, and stool.

In addition, serum levels of interleukin 6 (IL-6) – an inflammatory cytokine implicated in the cytokine storm frequently seen in patients with severe COVID-19 infections – were significantly lower on treatment days 2, 6, and 8 in patients treated with the combination, compared with those treated with lopinavir/ritonavir alone.

"Our trial demonstrates that early treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 with a triple combination of antiviral drugs may rapidly suppress the amount of virus in a patient's body, relieve symptoms, and reduce the risk to health care workers by reducing the duration and quantity of viral shedding (when the virus is detectable and potentially transmissible). Furthermore, the treatment combination appeared safe and well tolerated by patients," said lead investigator Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen from the University of Hong Kong, in a statement.

"Despite these encouraging findings," he continued, "we must confirm in larger phase 3 trials that interferon beta-1b alone or in combination with other drugs is effective in patients with more severe illness (in whom the virus has had more time to replicate)."

Plausible Rationale

Benjamin Medoff, MD, chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the study, said in an interview that the biologic rationale for the combination is plausible.

"I think this is a promising study that suggests that a regimen of interferon beta-1b, lopinavir/ritonavir, and ribavirin can shorten the duration of infection and improve symptoms in COVID-19 patients especially if started early in disease, in less than 7 days of symptom onset," he said in reply to a request for expert analysis.

"The open-label nature and small size of the study limits the broad use of the regimen as noted by the authors, and it's important to emphasize that the subjects enrolled did not have very severe disease (not in the ICU). However, the study does suggest that a larger truly randomized study is warranted," he said.

AIDS Drugs Repurposed

Lopinavir/ritonavir is commonly used to treat HIV/AIDS throughout the world, and the investigators had previously reported that the antiviral agents combined with ribavirin reduced deaths and the need for intensive ventilator support among patients with SARS-CoV, the betacoronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and antivirals have shown in vitro activity against both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, the closely related pathogen that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome.

"However, the viral load of SARS and MERS peaks at around day 7-10 after symptom onset, whereas the viral load of COVID-19 peaks at the time of presentation, similar to influenza. Experience from the treatment of patients with influenza who are admitted to hospital suggested that a combination of multiple antiviral drugs is more effective than single-drug treatments in this setting of patients with a high viral load at presentation," the investigators wrote.

To test this, they enrolled adults patients admitted to one of six Hong Kong Hospitals for virologically confirmed COVID-19 infections from Feb. 10 through March 20, 2020.

A total of 86 patients were randomly assigned to the combination and 41 to lopinavir/ritonavir alone as controls, at doses described above.

Patients who entered the trial within less than 7 days of symptom onset received the triple combination, with interferon dosing adjusted according to the day that treatment started. Patients recruited 1 or 2 days after symptom onset received three doses of interferon, patients started on day 3 or 4 received two doses, and those started on days 5 or 6 received one interferon dose. Patients recruited 7 days or later from symptom onset did not receive interferon beta-1b because of its proinflammatory effects.

In post-hoc analysis by day of treatment initiation, clinical and virological outcomes (except stool samples) were superior in patients admitted less than 7 days after symptom onset for the 52 patients who received a least one interferon dose plus lopinavir/ritonavir and ribavirin, compared with 24 patients randomized to the control arm (lopinavir/ritonavir only).

In contrast, among patients admitted and started on treatment at day 7 or later after symptom onset, there were no differences between those who received lopinavir/ritonavir alone or combined with ribavirin.

Adverse events were reported in 41 of 86 patients in the combination group and 20 of 41 patients in the control arm. The most common adverse events were diarrhea, occurring in 52 of all 127 patients, fever in 48, nausea in 43, and elevated alanine transaminase level in 18. The side effects generally resolved within 3 days of the start of treatments.

There were no serious adverse events reported in the combination group. One patient in the control group had impaired hepatic enzymes requiring discontinuation of treatment. No patients died during the study.

The study was funded by the Shaw Foundation, Richard and Carol Yu, May Tam Mak Mei Yin, and Sanming Project of Medicine. The authors and Dr. Medoff declared no competing interests.

SOURCE: Hung IFN et al. Lancet. 2020 May 8. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31101-6.

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