Thursday, April 30, 2020

A cure for COVID-19?

We are all desperate for a “cure” for the coronavirus illness, COVID-19. Since even the most optimistic accept that a vaccine is at least a year away (and that would be unprecedently fast), a drug that could offer a cure is the next great hope. On Wednesday, the press reported a statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci about the drug remdesivir from Gilead Science. The headlines touted “a cure,” a “game-changer,” and Gilead’s share price soared.

Do we really have an “effective treatment” against coronavirus? No, not really. Here is what Dr. Fauci said in a much-hyped White House announcement: “The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut significant positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery . . . The mortality rate trended towards being better in the sense of less deaths in the remdesivir group – 8 percent versus 11 percent in the placebo group. It has not reached statistical significance, but the data needs to be further analyzed.” When a result is described as not having reached statistical significance, this means that the differences could be due to chance alone. Flipping a coin three times, you will not be shocked to get heads three times, and it does not mean the coin is rigged. Similarly, small differences in response to different treatments will often show up without meaning there is a real difference, but simply by chance.

As to the “positive effect” cited by Dr. Fauci, he was describing a reduction in the mean duration of hospitalization from 15 days to 11 days. That is good, but hardly “an effective treatment against coronavirus” or a “drug that can block the virus” as the headlines blared.

Dr. Fauci’s announcement was unusual because it was made before the results of the trial have been published or subjected to peer review. To his credit, Dr. Fauci described the results as “preliminary.” He also tried to tamp down expectations arising from his announcement by saying that the data was a “proof of concept” rather than an effective treatment, similar to early results of drugs against AIDS. That important qualification was missing from many headlines. We later heard from Dr. Fauci that he made the announcement because he “feared it would come out in leaks.” While perhaps understandable, hardly the best reason or way to present science.

Contrast the NIH-sponsored trial with the results of a trial done in China and published on-line on April 29 in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. These researchers randomly assigned 237 patients with severe COVID-19 (all with low oxygen levels and pneumonia seen on CT) to remdesivir or placebo, They found that remdesivir use was not associated with a difference in time to clinical improvement, though there was trend to faster improvement with the drug in patients who were started on treatment earlier. They also found that treated patients had more “serious” adverse effects. There was no difference in death rates between the two groups (and those who read these posts regularly know I focus on that - a number that is neither subjective nor able to be fudged).

Why the difference between these two studies? Probably because the effects were so small that it was similar to a coin flip, but perhaps because one or the other trial had flaws. Since the Chinese study was peer-reviewed, it has inherently more credibility. Whichever proves to be more correct, the drug may (or may not) be helpful but is hardly “a cure.”

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The fox guarding the henhouse?

A tale of greed, bad science and poor decision-making by the FDA which is unfortunately not unique.

Pre-term birth, delivery before 37 weeks gestation, is a serious problem. It puts the baby at risk of disability or even death. Women who have had one “premie” are eager to do anything to avoid one in subsequent pregnancies, as are their doctors. The best estimates are that women who have had one premature delivery have a 30% risk of having one on a subsequent pregnancy.

Short of putting women on prolonged bedrest, there has been little available to reduce the rate of premature delivery. A “meta-analysis” of previously published studies done in 1990 suggested that while the hormone hydroxyprogesterone did not prevent miscarriage (for which it had been used), it appeared to protect against preterm birth. In 2003, a trial was conducted that claimed to show that injecting pregnant women weekly with hydroxyprogesterone in mid-pregnancy reduced the number of premature births. The treated group had 36% premature deliveries compared to 55% in the placebo group. There were many critics of the study, who pointed out that the placebo group had a much higher rate of premature birth than would have been expected, and those in the treated group had a similar but higher rate than expected if nothing were done. It was also pointed out that the pregnant uterus was “awash” in progesterone and so there was little biologic reason to expect the injections to do much.

Despite these reservations, many obstetricians began prescribing this treatment. Compounding pharmacies began making the injections and selling them for $15/shot. Enter stage right Adeza Biomedical, which used the 2003 trial to support their application for FDA approval of their branded hydroxyprogesterone for the prevention of premature birth. Many of the FDA’s own scientists pointed out the flaws of the trial, and when the branded product (Makena) was approved, it was with the stipulation that further trials be conducted. This trial, which enrolled over three times as many women, and reported results in March 2019, showed NO benefit from use of Makena.

The FDA convened another “expert panel” to decide if the drug should be kept on the market. The panel voted unanimously that the newer trial did not verify the benefit of Makena, and 13 to 3 that the combined evidence from the original and the newer trial did not provide evidence of any substantial benefit. When the vote came on whether to leave it on the market, the vote was much closer: 9 to 7 in favor of removing it from the market. The FDA decided to leave it on the market.

“Follow the money” has clarified many apparently confusing stories. While the product was sold for $15/shot by compounding pharmacies, Makena was marketed at an initial price of $1440/shot! As generics have entered the market, the list price has fallen, but is still $848/shot for a product that was profitable at $15. This obscene profit margin has allowed its current manufacturer, AMAG Pharmaceuticals, to generously support the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, which supplied many of the expert panelists. Neither society has yet reflected the negative trial in their guidelines.

My take home is that all FDA panelists should be truly disinterested. Societies accepting money from drug manufacturers and researchers getting support from manufacturers should be automatically excluded from advisory panels.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The coronavirus chaos: who is to blame?

“WE'RE NUMBER ONE 1!” I guess that is supposed to be something to make Americans proud. However, on April 11 that meant the United States had passed Italy in registering the greatest number of reported deaths from COVID-19. Worldwide, there are now over 1.7 million confirmed cases and over 104,000 deaths. The United States, with a bit over 4% of the world’s population, had some 501,700 cases and 18,860 deaths.

IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, the vice president is suggesting that doctors "recycle gowns" because hospitals don't have enough; states are sending ventilators to other states when this disease seems to recede because the medical devices are scarce; a fund meant to rescue small business is running out of money and Congress can't figure out how to fix it; the president said "we have the best" system for testing people for the coronavirus, even though other nations have tested a far higher percentage of their population; and a debate is raging among politicians about opening the economy, even though medical professionals say the disease is not yet controlled.

Contrast the U.S. with South Korea, an advanced economy of some 51.5 million, not nearly as wealthy as the U.S., nor blessed with the wealth of scientific and medical resources. Both South Korea and the U.S. reported their first COVID-19 cases on January 20. From that point, things dramatically diverged. If South Korea had cases and deaths in the same proportion of their population, they would have registered 79,635 cases and 2994 deaths. The actual numbers? 10,480 cases and 211 deaths! You cannot explain this away by different counting methods. South Korea has been much more aggressive in testing than the U.S., so we are much more likely to be undercounting than are the Koreans.

Who is to blame for the fiasco that is the U.S. response to COVID-19? There is blame enough for many, but the federal government bears the lion’s share.

China must take some share. When the first cases of the novel pneumonia appeared in Wuhan, the Chinese desire to save face and avoid scrutiny from Beijing led the political leaders of Hubei Province to downplay it and try to silence the messenger: Dr. Li Wenliang issued a warning about a strange new virus. Then the authorities summoned him for questioning. He was told to be silent. Dr. Li died of COVID-19, a true martyr. Precious weeks of preparation were lost.

Our health care system has in places responded with speed and cooperation, but in others has not covered itself with glory. We are all aware of the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that puts our doctors and nurses at risk. In several well-publicized cases, doctors and nurses who went public with their concerns or even started a GoFundMe campaign to obtain the needed gear were fired by their hospitals! Shades of Dr. Li. Not only does lack of PPE put front-line health care personnel at risk, it harms patients by making the physicians and nurses see them less often and/or transmit virus between patients. More and more physicians now work for venture capital firms. In NY, many of these responded to the COVID epidemic by cutting down the doctors’ shifts; after all, many of these patients are uninsured and not profitable. This epidemic has shown it is time to take direction of health care away from “the suits” and put it in the hands of those who understand patient care.

By far the biggest failure is the incompetence of the federal response. When word of the novel coronavirus spread, South Korea sprang into action with early mass testing, tracking and isolating all contacts of those infected. It started developing and stockpiling test kits in early January, as soon as Chinese scientists released the virus's genetic code and before a single Korean had been infected. The U.S. could have done the same. As far back as 2005, George Bush, having read a book about the 1918-1919 Spanish flu, tasked the CDC with gearing up to respond to pandemics. The Obama administration refined this during the Ebola crisis, and had a pandemic unit within the National Security Council. In 2018, as part of “reorganizing” the NSC, the pandemic unit was eliminated. While South Korea mobilized to prepare, and despite multiple warnings from within his administration, Trump insisted that “this is no worse than the flu,” and that “it will magically disappear by April.”

Shortages of supplies for our hospitals and health-care providers continue to plague our response to the novel coronavirus. As late as March 2, the administration was urging American businesses to take advantage of the booming market to export such supplies to other countries. If Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act earlier, he could have kept masks, ventilators, and PPEs at home. In February 2020, the value of U.S. mask exports to China was 1094% higher than the 2019 monthly average.

Even more disturbing are investigations into what is happening to the supplies hospitals and states are ordering. In the absence of federal masks, PPEs, ventilators, and so on, the president urged states to get what they needed themselves. They have bought supplies on the open market, only to have the federal government confiscate them. Federal supplies are being disproportionally distributed to states that vote Republican rather than states which most need them. It seems likely that at least some of the confusion is simply poor management, but the suggestion that leading administration officials are trying to create political capital out of this crisis seems in keeping with their usual patterns.

Testing, despite Trump’s claims, remains far behind that done in Korea, Singapore and other countries. Unproven therapies with potential for harm are being pushed by non-medical administration figures, from the President down. The Trump administration seems fixated on his image and the economy, public health be damned. This goes back to Trump’s insistence that a cruise ship with coronavirus-infected passengers not be allowed to dock in California lest U.S. numbers look worse and continues as he fixates on his TV ratings rather than competent management.

When we come out of this, let us resolve to do better. Let us resolve to have a President who believes in science rather than “his gut.” Let us resolve to have a President who puts the safety and health of the American people above his political future. Let us insist that our medical care system focus on patients before profits.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Friday, April 3, 2020

What's the latest on COVID-19?

As the evening newscasters are so fond of saying, “this is an evolving story, so stay tuned.” What you hear about the coronavirus seems to change almost daily, and if you are confused, that is because you should be! The traditional way medical research is reported is through publication in a “peer-reviewed” journal. The researchers submit their work and the editors send it to experts in the field for evaluation. These reviewers typically find minor (or major) flaws in the way the study was conducted or how the data are interpreted; their comments go to the researchers, who are expected to rewrite their paper in response. While this does generally result in better science, it is very time-consuming. In the current pandemic environment, many researchers are bypassing the established journal system to post their work on-line, and journal editors are often dramatically shortening the cycle. The good side is that research findings are communicated much more quickly; the bad is that much of what is spread reflects bad science that may not hold up.

That said, I wanted to share what we have learned in recent days, with the caveat that some of this is more conjecture than proof.

The first broad area is how the coronavirus is spread. The CDC believes that some 25% of people infected with the virus are asymptomatic, but still able to spread it to others. A short report published in the British Medical Journal on April 2 from China claims that as many as 78% of new infections detected by culture had no symptoms. Similar findings were reported from a small study in northern Italy. Another new piece of data says that while we are aware the virus is spread by coughing or sneezing, it may also be spread by normal breathing or talking. The bottom line: when you see new advice to wear a mask when out in public, realize that this is more to protect other people from you than to protect you from others.

How about the widely promulgated 6-foot rule? It is based on a Harvard study from the 1930’s. An MIT professor (not Trump’s uncle) claims this is not adequate, and that a vigorous sneeze may propel droplets over 20 feet. Dr. Fauci has no plans to change the CDC advise, but I think we can conclude that 6 feet is the minimum safe distance!

Prevention would be ideal. A vaccine would be best but is a long time away. A peer-reviewed study published this week in EBioMedicine reported on a candidate vaccine that induced an immune response in rodents within two weeks. While encouraging, you must remember that vaccines, which are given to huge numbers of healthy people, must pass stringent tests of both efficacy AND safety before they are approved. Optimistically, we are at least a year away, and probably longer.

A tantalizing study came out this week that showed that the COVID-19 seemed to have less impact in countries that routinely used BCG vaccine, a vaccine to prevent tuberculosis, that is universally given to newborns in Japan and China. It was previously used in France and Spain, but was discontinued years ago, and was never adopted in Italy or the U.S. Several vaccines, including BCG, have been shown to produce non-specific improved immune response against microbes in general. The BCG vaccine is proven safe, and so might be a candidate for use.

Treatment recommendations for established COVID-19 disease rest on tiny studies and are almost certainly going to mislead as much as help.

A study from China looked at the anti-viral agents lopinavir and ritonavir, used for AIDS, and found they had no benefit in a study involving 199 moderately severe patients given the drug combination for two weeks. They are being further studied in larger trials sponsored by the World Health Organization.

How about Vitamin C? If you are a devotee of Internet searches, Linus Pauling’s old miracle cure for colds and many other illnesses will cure COVID-19 as well. Well, Vitamin C does NOT cure the common cold, nor is it likely to cure COVID-19. A trial is being done in China, but do not hold your breath.

Finally, what about the “Trump cure:” hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) with or without azithromax. It makes sense to look at hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment, as it has been shown to have some anti-viral activity in the test tube, but to date the evidence for its benefit to patients is mixed at best. The early French study which I discussed in a prior post, which claimed 100% clearance of the virus in patients given HCQ and azithromax, was bad science and essentially useless to aid in medical decision-making. Two small clinical trials have shown conflicting results. A Chinese study looked at 62 patients, half given 5 days of 400 mg/day HCQ, and half supportive care, and found that treated patients recovered more quickly than those not given the medicine, and that four of those not given HCQ progressed to severe disease while none of the treated patients did. Sounds good? Unfortunately, another French group studied eleven patients using the HCQ/azithromax regimen and found no benefit, as did a second Chinese study of HCQ. Both drugs can cause serious heart rhythm disorders, and when given together may cause sudden death. The proper role for these drugs, singly or together, is in a proper clinical trial, with careful heart monitoring.

What you should do remains the same as it was last week. Stay away from others. Do not go out if you are sick. Cover your face when out. Wash your hands whenever you touch anything outside (or use hand sanitizer). Wash your hands after dealing with the mail or opening packages.


Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon