Arthritis drug speeds up Covid recovery and saves lives

Tocilizumab caused significant drop in mortality in trials and can be used alongside steroids

FILE PHOTO: A pharmacist displays a box of tocilizumab, which is used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, at the pharmacy of Cambrai hospital, France, April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo
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A drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis accelerates recovery from Covid-19 and can save the lives of seriously ill patients, the University of Oxford found.

Tocilizumab, sold under the brand name Actemra, was found to be effective in treating patients with inflammation and low oxygen levels.

The trial involving more than 4,000 patients found a significant reduction in mortality, with 596 (29 per cent) of the patients in the tocilizumab group dying within 28 days, compared with 694 (33 per cent) patients in the usual care group.

For every 25 patients treated with tocilizumab one additional life would be saved, said the project’s co-leaders, Peter Horby and Martin Landray.

The benefits of the drug were enhanced when it was taken along with steroids such as dexamethasone, they said.

"Used in combination the impact is substantial," said Mr Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford.

"We now know that the benefits of tocilizumab extend to all Covid patients with low oxygen levels and significant inflammation," said Mr Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford.

The findings were part of the Recovery trial, which has been testing a range of potential treatments for Covid-19 since March 2020.

In June last year, Recovery researchers found that the cheap and widely available steroid dexamethasone reduced death rates by about a third in the most severely ill Covid-19 patients. That drug has rapidly become part of standard-of-care recommended for such patients in the UK.

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who was not directly involved in the trial, said its results were important.

"It is a large trial and the benefits were seen both on earlier discharge from hospital and mortality," he said. "The magnitude of benefit is not startling but is clinically important, with a reduction in deaths from 33 per cent to 29 per cent."

Actemra, manufactured by Roche, was authorised with Sanofi's similar drug Kevzara by Britain's National Health Service in early January for Covid-19 patients in intensive care units after data indicated it could reduce hospital stays by about 10 days.

In 2020, Actemra rose to become Roche's fifth best-selling drug, accounting for sales of more than $3 billion, with nearly $600 million linked to Covid-19 treatment.