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Current COVID-19 treatments: What we know

Karen Berger medical writer and reviewer headshot By | Updated on April 13, 2020

You may have spent time at your warehouse club or local supermarket, preparing for the coronavirus outbreak by stocking up on toilet paper, piling your shopping cart high with milk, bread, and eggs (french toast, anyone?). You may have bought cases of soap and hand sanitizer to stay clean. But despite your best preparation, what if you do get coronavirus? Is there a coronavirus treatment available? 

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Coronavirus treatment

Currently, there is no approved coronavirus treatment. Patients who have mild symptoms may not need any medication beyond over-the-counter pain relievers and fever medications to treat symptoms. Patients with severe symptoms may receive a combination of antivirals, HIV medication, antimalarial medication, and/or antibiotics. 

Supportive care 

Patients may receive supportive care, which keeps them comfortable while recovering from coronavirus. Over-the-counter medication for pain/fever may be taken. Ask your healthcare provider which one is best for you. 

Cool baths and fluids to prevent dehydration are helpful as well. Patients with mild symptoms can recover (and self-quarantine) at home, while patients with more severe symptoms and/or other medical conditions will need to be treated in the hospital and receive more supportive care such as oxygen or even a ventilator to help them breathe. 

Drugs being studied for coronavirus (COVID-19)

Information on the drugs under investigation can be found at clinicaltrials.gov.

Hydroxychloroquine (generic Plaquenil) and chloroquine are drugs that are traditionally used for malaria or certain inflammatory conditions. The drugs are currently being studied for prevention and treatment of COVID-19. The FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization that allows the use of these drugs from the Strategic National Stockpile for hospitalized adolescents and adults (50 kg or more) who cannot participate in a clinical trial. Zithromax (azithromycin) may be used in combination with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, but this is also investigational.

Remdesivir, a drug by Gilead Sciences that was originally developed for Ebola, is in clinical trials. Remdesivir is not yet approved for treatment in the U.S. and still an investigational drug, but it has shown broad-spectrum antiviral activity. 

The FDA has also issued guidance on using the plasma of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 (known as convalescent plasma). This is still an investigational treatment and is being studied for safety and efficacy.

Favilavir (favipiravir), an antiviral drug that has previously been used under the brand name of Avigan to treat influenza in Japan, is now being studied. It’s undergoing a clinical trial in Shenzhen, Guangdong province in China as a possible coronavirus treatment.

RELATED: Learn more about Favilavir

An HIV drug, Kaletra (lopinavir-ritonavir), is being studied in China for the treatment of coronavirus. Kaletra, in combination with ribavirin, resulted in a lower fatality rate and a milder disease course in the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak.  

Janssen Pharmaceutical Company donated its Prezcobix (darunavir/cobicistat), an HIV medication, to be used in research of COVID-19 treatment in China. Darunavir has been reported to potentially have antiviral activity against coronavirus but is currently approved for use by the FDA with a boosting agent, and in combination with other antiretrovirals for HIV-1 treatment. Janssen has also partnered with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to expedite the development of a COVID-19 treatment.

In addition, Pfizer will begin studying antiviral compounds in April, and researchers at Columbia University just received a $2.1 million grant to study cures and vaccines.

Other drugs being tried in the hospitals and investigated include Reyataz, Anakinra, or Actemra

Coronavirus vaccines

Coronavirus vaccines are currently in development all over the world. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine are testing a new vaccine for COVID-19. The researchers had previously studied SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus causing the current pandemic. The study is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and the National Cancer Institute. 

Johnson & Johnson is also working on a vaccine for COVID-19, and has selected its leading candidate. Clinical trials in humans are expected to begin in September 2020. Through a partnership, Johnson & Johnson will work with Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), together committing over $1 billion toward research, development, and clinical testing of vaccines. 

A group of experts, coordinated by WHO (the World Health Organization), is working toward the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Many vaccines are already in development globally (preclinical trials), and three vaccines are already being studied in human trials. 

Prevention of coronavirus: Official recommendations

There are currently no antiviral medications licensed by the FDA for COVID-19 treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working on vaccines as well as treatments. The CDC reinforces that because there is no vaccine available, it is important to focus on preventing the spread of infection. The CDC advises that the best way to prevent coronavirus is to avoid exposure. Community-based interventions such as social distancing, canceling events, and allowing employees (and even students!) to work from home, are all helping to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

Some tips to avoid exposure and protect others from human transmission:

  • Stay home! If you do not need to go to work, stay at home and help flatten the curve.
  • Practice social distancing. Stay at least 6 feet away from others, if you must go out.
  • Wear a face mask if you are out in public. Be sure it covers your mouth and nose.
  • Handwashing is very important. Clean your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap is not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with an infected person. 
  • If you cough or sneeze, use the inside of your elbow or a tissue that covers both your nose and mouth. Then throw out the tissue, and immediately wash your hands as described above. 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily, such as doorknobs, phones, and keyboards.
  • Consult your healthcare provider immediately if you have symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, sore throat, sneezing, and/or cough. 

Frequently asked questions about COVID-19

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These illnesses can be as minor as a common cold, to something more severe such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain of coronavirus not previously seen in humans. Coronaviruses are zoonotic—they are transmitted between animals and people. For example, SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV originated from camels. 

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

People infected with coronavirus usually experience fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms have been reported, such as fatigue, achiness, nasal symptoms, sore throat, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and loss of smell and/or taste. In more severe cases, coronavirus can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, and even death.

Where has the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) spread?

Coronavirus, a serious respiratory illness, originated in Wuhan (the capital of the Hubei Province), China, and has spread all over the world. Experts are still learning about how it spreads. The WHO has declared coronavirus a pandemic. Currently, there are almost 1.8 million reported cases worldwide, with the most cases in the U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and China.

Are NSAIDs, ACE inhibitors, and ARBs safe to take? 

Initially, there was controversy about whether patients with COVID-19 could safely take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Currently, the CDC says that there is not an association between NSAID use and COVID-19 outcomes. 

There was also confusion about ACE inhibitors (such as lisinopril) and ARBs (such as losartan) possibly worsening COVID-19 outcomes, but currently the CDC reports that there is no data to support these drugs causing worse outcomes. The American Heart Association (AHA), the Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA), and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) released a statement recommending patients continue these drugs for patients (if already receiving them) for heart failure, high blood pressure, or ischemic heart disease.