Doctors Publish Paper on COVID-19 Protocol; Experts Unconvinced

Jillian Mock

December 21, 2020

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

Physicians who developed a protocol for treating hospitalized patients with COVID-19 they call MATH+ have now published a literature review with observational mortality rates in the Journal of Intensive Care Medicine (JICM) that they say supports the protocol's use.

The physicians have been promoting their MATH+ protocol as a way to improve survival from severe COVID-19 since the spring, and this is the first time their protocol and any results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But because the paper contains only hospital-level mortality rates compared with previously published observational data and clinical trials (not data from a randomized controlled trial testing the protocol), experts remain unconvinced the protocol benefits patients.

"This is not a study by any stretch of the imagination," Hugh Cassiere, MD, director of critical care medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, told Medscape Medical News via email. "It is comparative data which should never be used to make conclusions of one therapy over another."

"It's food for thought for those clinicians [treating COVID-19] and it gives them some options," said Pierre Kory, MD, MPA, a pulmonary critical care specialist in Wisconsin and one of the protocol developers. "What we really emphasize for this disease is it has to be a combination therapy protocol."

As Medscape previously reported, MATH+ stands for methylprednisolone, ascorbic acid, thiamine, and heparin. The "+" includes additional therapies like vitamin D, zinc, melatonin, statins, and famotidine. 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.

The protocol evolved over a few weeks this spring 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. In March, when Marik and his colleagues formalized the MATH+ protocol, healthcare organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) were advising against steroids for COVID-19 patients.

Determined to spread a different message, the MATH+ physicians began publicizing the protocol with a website and a small communications team. They tried to get their protocol in front of leading healthcare organizations, like the WHO, and Kory testified remotely in front of the Senate Homeland Security Committee in early May. (Kory testified in front of the committee again earlier this month about the use of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment. He told Medscape the MATH+ protocol has been updated to include ivermectin since the submission to JICM.)

The physicians have continued promoting the protocol in the summer and fall, even after the RECOVERY trial showed dexamethasone treatment decreased mortality in hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 and the WHO and other organizations started recommending the drug.

In the newly published JICM article, the researchers describe a mix of randomized controlled trials, observational studies, and basic science research that inform each of the individual pieces of the MATH+ protocol. Some of the cited research pertains specifically to the treatment of COVID-19.

Other studies the authors use to support the protocol are based on data from other viral outbreaks, like H1N1 and SARS-CoV, as well as other medical conditions, like nonviral acute respiratory distress syndrome and sepsis. The researchers did not conduct a randomized controlled trial of MATH+ for patients with COVID-19 because, as they write in the article, they did not believe they had the clinical equipoise required for such a study.

"With respect to each of the individual 'core' therapies of MATH+, all authors felt the therapies either superior to any placebo or possessed evidence of minimal risk and cost compared to potential benefit," they write in the paper.

"With a new disease, it is totally reasonable to take your best guess at a therapy," wrote F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Accelerator at Yale University School of Medicine, in an email to Medscape. "When there is limited information, you go with what you have. What I take issue with here is the authors' implication that that's where the scientific process stops. In my mind, it's actually just the beginning." Every investigator believes his or her intervention is beneficial but is not sure — that's why they conduct a randomized controlled trial, Wilson said.

"Without robust trials, we are left with too many options on the table and no way to know what helps — leading to this 'throw the book at them' approach, where you just pick your favorite molecule and give it," said Wilson. 

Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone, echoed this sentiment: "Many of the individual components could be expected to provide benefit and combining therapies is something physicians often do," Parnia said in an email to Medscape. "I think this is a promising approach; however, this ultimately needs to be studied."

The article includes previously unpublished observational mortality rates from two hospitals where the physicians have used the protocol: United Memorial Hospital in Houston, Texas and Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. At United Memorial, MATH+ was "systematically" followed for patients admitted to the hospital, and at Norfolk General it was followed for patients admitted to the ICU. The two hospitals treated 140 and 191 COVID-19 patients with MATH+, respectively, as of July 20.

The average observed hospital or 28-day mortality rate at United Memorial was 4.4% and at Norfolk General was 6.1%, for a combined mortality rate of 5.1%. The researchers compared this rate with reported outcomes from 10 studies of more than 400 hospitals in the United States (72 hospitals), the United Kingdom (386), and China (3). The mortality rate for COVID-19 patients at these hospitals ranged from 15.6% to 32%, for an average mortality rate of 22.9%.

The difference in average mortality rates represents a "more than 75% absolute risk reduction in mortality" with MATH+, according to the authors. The data from other hospitals were reported from January to early June, representative of death rates early in the pandemic and before the announcement of the RECOVERY trial results spurred increased use of dexamethasone

The new numbers may not be convincing to other physicians.

"The comparison of the outcomes in the two hospitals where this protocol is implemented vs mortality rates in other published studies is quite a stretch," Wilson told Medscape. "Hospitals with robust research programs that publish large cohorts tend to be tertiary care centers where sick patients get referred. Without data on the baseline characteristics of the patients in these studies, it's really not appropriate to draw apples-to-apples comparisons."

"There are many factors that lead to different mortality rates [between hospitals] and it often reflects the quality of general ICU care," said Parnia. For example, many ICUs were overwhelmed and stretched during the pandemic, while others were not.

"This protocol remains a hypothesis in need of a prospective clinical trial," said Daniel Kaul, MD, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Comparing gross mortality rates from different centers at different times with different case mixes is at most hypothesis generating."

"The use of comparative data is useless information…not based on true comparison of groups," said Cassiere of the average mortality rates. Only a randomized, placebo-controlled trial can prove if a treatment is effective. "This protocol should be abandoned."

"The MATH+ is based on negative evidence," Cassiere told Medscape, pointing to trials that showed no effect for vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and thiamine in critical illnesses. And, given the "overwhelming positive data'' for dexamethasone to treat patients with severe COVID-19, its exclusion from MATH+ in favor of a steroid that has not been extensively studied for COVID-19 is "reckless and irresponsible," he said. 

Kory pushed back strongly against this assertion, pointing to the decades of research on methylprednisolone as a treatment for lung disease and ARDS outlined in the article. "It has far more evidence than dexamethasone," he told Medscape over the phone.

"Our recommendation is based on a clear understanding of the pharmacological principle to guide prolonged glucocorticoid administration in ARDS and COVID-19," wrote G. Umberto Meduri, MD, a MATH+ coauthor and professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis..

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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