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Arthritis drug cuts risk of severely-ill Covid patients dying by 12%, major trial reveals


An arthritis drug cuts the risk of severely ill Covid patients dying by as much as a fifth, a major trial revealed today.

The protection is on top of that given from dexamethasone and tocilizumab, two medicines already proven to save the lives of the infected.

Results of the Oxford University Recovery trial, involving 8,000 hospitalised Covid patients, will add another weapon to the ‘suite’ of treatments available to fight the virus.

All of the patients received standard NHS treatment, but half also had baricitinib — which is given as a £25 tablet once a day for ten days. 

Thirty-three fewer deaths were recorded in the group given the drug, compared to those kept on the drugs already available. This equated to an additional 13 per cent reduced risk, the researchers calculated. 

But scientists claimed the benefit could actually be as high as 20 per cent.

Sir Martin Landray, an epidemiologist behind the research, said today’s results were a ‘big step’ towards getting the drug available in the UK. 

It has been dished out to severely ill Covid patients in the US since November 2020. 

Baricitinib was first approved five years ago to treat rheumatoid arthritis, a condition where the immune system misfires and attacks the joints.

This leads to inflammation in the affected areas, which the medicine reduces to ease pain and swelling. 

Scientists believe this process also helps Covid patients because inflammation that’s triggered by the disease can damage organs and raise the risk of death. 

A drug usually used to treat rheumatoid arthritis reduces the risk of people in hospital with severe Covid dying (stock image)

A drug usually used to treat rheumatoid arthritis reduces the risk of people in hospital with severe Covid dying (stock image)

Sir Peter Horby, a professor involved in the trial at Oxford University

Sir Martin Landray, a professor involved in the trial at Oxford University

Sir Martin Landray, a professor in epidemiology at Oxford University, said today’s results were a big step in approving the drug for use in the UK. 

Baricitinib, available on prescription under the brand name Olumiant in the UK, is just the latest drug spotted by the Recovery trial that could help Covid patients.

It found dexamethasone — a £5 drug that has existed for decades — cut the risk of death by a fifth in June 2020.

Eight months later it revealed tocilizumab, which costs £600 per treatment, could halve the risk of severely ill patients dying. 

What is baricitinib?

The drug is a type of anti-inflammatory medicine used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

It is given as a tablet once a day and sold under the brand name Olumiant.

In Covid patients, it works by reducing inflammation triggered by an overreaction by the immune system.

This leads to damage to organs such as the lungs, leaving the body struggling to get enough oxygen to vital areas.

Baricitinib was first approved for use in the UK in 2017 for arthritis patients.

Possible side-effects include:

  • Abdominal pain;
  • Headaches;
  • Increased risk of infection with other diseases;
  • Nausea;
  • Skin reactions;
  • Body produces too many platelets, raising the risk of blood clots.

Baricitinib is also known to raise the risk of blood clots, and has been linked to facial swelling. 

In the latest study — released as a pre-print today — participants were around 58 years old and recruited between February and December last year.

About two-thirds were receiving oxygen, and a further quarter were on additional respiratory support. 

The majority were given a corticosteroid such as dexamethasone.

A total of 4,008 patients received ‘usual’ NHS care, while 4,148 received that plus baricitinib.

Results showed 513 patients in the baricitinib group had died within 28 days, or 12 per cent of the total.

But among those who did not get the drug there were 546 deaths, or 14 per cent of the total.

The benefit of baricitinib was consistent regardless of which other Covid treatments the patients were also receiving, including corticosteroids, tocilizumab or remdesivir.

Sir Martin told a briefing today the results showed a ‘really important’ benefit for patients.

‘This benefit is on top of multiple other treatments,’ he said.

‘So, it is knocking down the risk of death for them further still.

‘What we have now is a suite of drugs which tackle the immune system at different levels and in different ways, and can be used in combination.’

Scientists found no safety concerns with the drugs being used in Covid patients.

Some 40 per cent were double-jabbed, as the trial took place while the vaccines were being rolled out.

But scientists said regardless of vaccination status, once someone has ended up in hospital it is clear ‘they are in trouble’ and in need of treatment. 

Professor Athimalaipet Ramanan, a paediatrician at Bristol University who was not involved in the study, said the results added ‘further weight’ to suggestions that baricitinib should be used for Covid patients.

Mark Rivvers, 51, deputy head porter at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, took part in the baricitinib study when he was admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital with severe Covid last September.

He said: ‘I was in hospital for almost a month, mostly in an intensive care unit.

‘Everything in my body seemed to be fighting against everything else – I was on almost constant respiratory support, I developed sepsis, and I had pneumonia all across my lungs.

‘But I saw it as my duty to take part in the Recovery trial because I knew that no matter what happened to me, I was doing something positive to help others.

‘I’m really pleased about the result with baricitinib, and hope that it can now be used to benefit many others.’ 

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