Doctors Say Their COVID-19 Protocol Saves Lives. Others Want Proof.

Jillian Mock

July 16, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As COVID-19 cases mounted in Texas in late June, a local Houston news station shadowed Joseph Varon, MD, making rounds in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. An unseen newscaster tells viewers that Varon credits his success against COVID-19 so far to an experimental and "controversial" drug protocol consisting of vitamins, steroids, and blood thinners.

"This is war. There's no time to double-blind anything," Varon tells the camera. "This is working. And if it's working, I'm going to keep on doing it."

Varon is one of 10 physicians behind the protocol known as MATH+, which in media interviews and congressional testimony they say has worked to treat COVID-19 patients and save lives in their intensive care units across the country. But response to the protocol among other critical care physicians is mixed, with several physicians, in interviews with Medscape Medical News, urging caution because the benefits and relative risks of the combined medications have not been tested in randomized control trials.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, there's been tension between the need for rigorous scientific study to understand a novel disease, which takes time, and the need to treat seriously ill patients immediately. Some treatments, like hydroxychloroquine, were promoted without randomized clinical trial data and then later were shown to be ineffective or even potentially harmful when tested.

"This pandemic has shown us there's lots of ideas out there and they need to be tested and a theoretical basis is insufficient," says Daniel Kaul, MD, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The ups and downs with hydroxychloroquine offer a sobering example, he says. "I would argue we have an ethical obligation to do randomized controlled trials to see if our treatments work."

Creating MATH+

MATH+ stands for methylprednisolone, ascorbic acid, thiamine, and heparin. The "+" holds a place for additional therapies like vitamin D, zinc, and melatonin. The protocol originated as a variation of the "HAT therapy," a combination of hydrocortisone, ascorbic acid, and thiamine, which critical care specialist Paul Marik, MD, created for treating critically ill patients with sepsis.

Over a few weeks, the protocol evolved as Marik, chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, emailed with a small group of colleagues about treatments and their observations of SARS-CoV-2 in action, swapping in methylprednisolone and adding the anticoagulant heparin.

When Marik and colleagues created the protocol in early March, many healthcare organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) were advising against steroids for COVID-19 patients. The MATH+ physicians decided they needed to spread a different message, and began publicizing the protocol with a website and a small communications team.

Marik says they tried to get their protocol in front of healthcare organizations — including the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health — but received no response. Marik went on Newt Gingrich's podcast to discuss the protocol in the hopes it would make its way to the White House.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin saw the protocol and invited Pierre Kory, MD, MPA, who practices in Johnson's home state, to testify remotely in front of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Kory is a pulmonary critical care specialist about to start a new job at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee.

In his testimony, Kory shared his positive experience using the protocol to treat patients and expressed his dismay that national healthcare organizations came out against the use of corticosteroids for COVID-19 from the early days of the pandemic based on what he called a "tragic error in analysis of medical data." Although an analysis by national organizations suggested corticosteroids might be dangerous in COVID-19 patients, one of his colleagues came to the opposite conclusion, he said. But these organizations advised supportive care only, and against steroids. "We think that is a fatal and tragic flaw," Kory said. 

"The problem with the protocol early on was that it was heresy," says Kory, referring to the protocol's inclusion of corticosteroids before official treatment guidelines. During the height of the pandemic in New York this spring, Kory spent 5 weeks working in the ICU at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in Manhattan. Seeing patients flounder on supportive care, Kory says he used MATH+ successfully during his time in New York, using escalating and pulse doses of corticosteroids to stabilize rapidly deteriorating patients.

The website's home page initially included an invitation for visitors to donate money to support "getting word of this effective treatment protocol out to physicians and hospitals around the world." After Medscape Medical News brought up the donation prompt in questions, the physicians decided to remove all calls for donations from the website and social media, communications representative Betsy Ashton said. "Critics are misinterpreting this as some kind of fund-raising operation, when that could hardly be the case," Ashton said in an email. "They are horrified that anyone would impugn their motives."

Donations paid for the website designer, webmaster, and her work, Ashton said, and the physicians now have donors who will support publicizing the protocol without online calls for donations. "We have no commercial or vested interest," Marik said. "I'm not going to make a single cent out of this and it's obviously very time-consuming."

The Basis for the Protocol

The protocol is based on common sense, an understanding of scientific literature, and an understanding of COVID-19, Marik says. The website includes links to past research trials and observational studies examining ascorbic acid and thiamine in critically ill patients and early looks at anticoagulants in COVID-19 patients.

They chose methylprednisolone as their corticosteroid based on the expertise of group member G. Umberto Meduri, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee, who had found the steroid effective in treating acute respiratory distress syndrome. On the MATH+ website, the physicians link to multiple observational studies posted on preprint servers in April and May that suggest methylprednisolone helped COVID-19 patients.

"What's happened with time is all the elements have been validated by scientific studies, which makes this so cool," says Marik. The RECOVERY Trial results in particular validated the push to use corticosteroids in COVID-19 patients, he says. But that study used a different steroid, dexamethasone, in much smaller doses than what MATH+ recommends. Revised guidance from the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommends dexamethasone for severely ill patients, but says methylprednisolone and prednisone can be used as substitutes at equivalent doses. 

Marik and Kory say that mortality rates for COVID-19 patients at their respective hospitals decreased after they began using the protocol. The physicians have been collecting observational data on their patients, but have not yet published any, and do not plan to conduct a randomized trial.

Several physicians who were not involved in the creation of the protocol say the evidence the physicians cite is not robust enough to warrant the promotion of MATH+ and call for randomized controlled trials. Coming up with a protocol is fine, says Kaul, but "you have to do the hard work of doing a randomized control trial to determine if those drugs given in those combinations work or not."

"When I looked at it, I thought it was actually not very evidence based," says Michelle Gong, MD, chief of the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Montefiore Health System in New York City. "It is not something I would recommend for my doctors to do outside of a clinical trial."

That's the civil war…It's the most polarizing medicine. Pierre Kory, MD, MPA, on ascorbic acid in the protocol

The protocol authors push back against the necessity and feasibility of randomized control trials.

There is no time for a randomized control trial right now, says Jose Iglesias, DO, associate professor at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall and critical care specialist at Community Medical Center and Jersey Shore University Medical Center in New Jersey. "Time is limited. We're busy bedside clinicians taking care of patients, and patients who are dying."

Marik argues there is not equipoise: It wouldn't be ethical to randomize patients in a placebo group when the physicians are confident the steroids will help. And the protocol is personalized for each patient, making the standardization required for a randomized control trial incredibly difficult, he says. He also cites "the people who are unwilling to accept our results and just think it's too good to be true."

Hugh Cassiere, MD, director of critical care medicine at Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, said he finds it "very disturbing that this is being propagated." In the context of a pandemic in which physicians from other specialties are helping out colleagues in ICUs and might follow the protocol uncritically, he worries, "this could potentially lead to harm."

"I understand the intention; everybody wants to do something, these patients are so sick and the crisis so sharp that we all want to do something to make patients better," Gong said. "But as physicians taking care of patients we need to make sure we separate the noise from the evidence."

Peer Review

The physicians who reviewed MATH+ for Medscape Medical News differed on which parts of the protocol they support and which parts they would change.

Dexamethasone should be the corticosteroid of choice over methylprednisolone, says Cassiere, because it has now been proven effective in the randomized RECOVERY Trial, which also tested dosing and a timetable for treatment.

But Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone, thinks methylprednisolone may be effective, and that even higher doses over longer periods of time may stave off recurring pneumonia, based on his experience using the steroid to treat COVID-19 patients in New York.

"What I really like about this protocol is, these guys are very smart, they recommend the need to treat multiple different things at the same time," says Parnia. COVID-19 is a complex condition, he notes: If physicians are only focused on solving one problem, like hypoxia, patients could still be dying from blood clots. 

Despite general concerns about the protocol, Cassiere says he was excited about the inclusion of heparin. Given the extreme levels of clotting seen in COVID-19 patients, he would have included specific D-dimer levels to guide treatment and explored antiplatelet therapies like aspirin. Gong, however, cautioned that she had seen her patients on anticoagulants develop gastrointestinal bleeding, and reiterated the need for clinical evidence. (At least one clinical trial is currently testing the risks and benefits of heparin as an antithrombotic therapy for COVID-19 patients.)

Perhaps the most divisive part of the protocol is the inclusion of ascorbic acid. "That's the civil war," says Kory. "It's the most polarizing medicine." The authors of the MATH+ protocol were close colleagues before COVID-19 in part because of a mutual research interest in ascorbic acid, he says. Other physicians, including Cassiere, are extremely skeptical that ascorbic acid has any effect, citing recently published studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found ascorbic acid ineffective for treating sepsis.

The MATH+ creators say they are working on a literature review of the research behind the protocol, and they plan to write up the observational impacts of the protocol. Marik says he's not optimistic about getting the findings published in a high-impact journal given the observational nature of the research; the relatively small number of patients treated at hospitals using the protocol (140 patients at Marik's hospital in Virginia and 180 at Varon's in Houston, according to Marik); and the vast number of COVID-19 papers being submitted to scientific journals right now.

"This is not a remedy with expensive designer drugs," Marik said. "No one has any interest in treating patients with cheap, safe, readily available drugs."

"I hope they're right if they're saying this combination of medicines dramatically decreases mortality," says Taison Bell, MD, director of the medical intensive care unit and assistant professor of medicine at UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But physicians have hurt patients in the past with medications they hoped would work, he says. "We have to make sure we're balancing the risk and the harm with that benefit, and the only way to protect patients from those biases is by doing a randomized controlled trial."

Jillian Mock is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. She writes about health care, climate change, and the environment and her work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, Audubon Magazine, and Scientific American.

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