A drug used for multiple sclerosis nearly halves the chance of developing severe coronavirus symptoms in hospitalised patients and may prevent deaths, a new trial has shown.

Covid patients at nine hospitals including Southampton General were given an inhaled version of the treatment interferon beta-1a and were twice as likely to recover within 14 days as those in the placebo arm of the trial, even though they were sicker to begin with.

In a trial of 101 patients, three died in the control group but nobody given the drug died, even though far more needed oxygen therapy at the beginning of the trial.

In the placebo group, 11 patients (22 per cent) developed severe disease – defined in the study as requiring mechanical ventilation – or died between the first dose and day 15 or 16, compared with six of 48 patients in the treatment arm (13 per cent).

Researchers have called for larger trials but say the drug could help hospitalised patients fight off severe disease and recover more quickly, which would also ease pressure on the NHS.

Professor Tom Wilkinson of the University of Southampton, the study’s lead author, said: “The results confirm our belief that interferon beta, a widely known drug approved for use in its injectable form for other indications, may have the potential as an inhaled drug to restore the lungs’ immune response and accelerate recovery from Covid-19. 

“Inhaled interferon beta-1a provides high, local concentrations of the immune protein, which boosts lung defences rather than targeting specific viral mechanisms. 

“This might carry additional advantages of treating Covid-19 infection when it occurs alongside infection by another respiratory virus, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), that may well be encountered in the winter months.” 

Interferon beta is a naturally occurring protein that coordinates the body’s immune response to viral infections. 

Laboratory studies have found that coronavirus directly suppresses the release of interferon beta, while clinical trials demonstrate decreased activity of this important protein in Covid-19 patients.  

The research is published in the journal The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

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