An international team of researchers led by Dr. Eleanor Fish, emerita scientist at UHN’s Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, has shown that the antiviral drug interferon(IFN)-α2b can help speed up the recovery of COVID-19 patients.
Published today in Frontiers in Immunology, the study found that treatment with IFN-α2b significantly reduced the duration of detectable virus in the upper respiratory tract by about seven days on average. The treatment also reduced blood levels of two inflammatory proteins found in COVID-19 patients.
Interferons are a group of signaling proteins released by the human body in response to all viruses. Interferons prevent viruses from multiplying and also activate immune cells to help clear an infection. Some viruses can evade this defense mechanism by blocking the production of interferons. By raising interferon levels, the treatment helps to counter this evasive maneuver and restores the ability of the immune system to clear the virus.
Dr. Fish worked with researchers at the Tongii Medical College’s Union Hospital in Wuhan to evaluate the potential of interferon as a treatment for COVID-19. The study recruited 77 patients with moderate symptoms that were admitted between mid-January and late February.
IFN-α treatment has been approved for many years to treat cancers as well as viral infections. The research team considered IFN-α therapy for COVID-19 after Dr. Fish had demonstrated its therapeutic benefit during the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003.
“Rather than developing a virus-specific antiviral for each new virus outbreak, I would argue that we should consider interferons as the ‘first responders’ in terms of treatment,” says Dr. Fish. “Interferons have been approved for clinical use for many years, so the strategy would be to ‘repurpose’ them for severe acute virus infections.”
The study’s findings demonstrate the promise of IFN-α as a treatment strategy. A randomized clinical trial with a larger group of infected patients is a crucial next step to establish the efficacy and safety of this treatment for COVID-19. Dr. Fish is also part of an effort to evaluate interferons for prophylactic use against COVID-19.
Zhou Q, Chen V, Shannon CP, Wei X-S, Xiang X, Wang X, Wang Z-H, Tebbutt SJ, Kollmann TR, Fish EN. Interferon-alpha2b treatment for COVID-19. Front Immunol. 2020 May 15. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2020.01061.