Anyone over 65 with coronavirus symptoms in the UK can enrol on to a clinical trial testing experimental drugs at home.
Scientists from the University of Oxford are recruiting older people with the infection’s tell-tale fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell to test the antibiotics azithromycin and doxycycline.
The vast majority of people with the coronavirus overcome the infection naturally, with no treatment being required.
Those admitted to hospital with complications may be given supportive care, like ventilation, and a course of steroids that have been shown to cut the risk of death for some patients.
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With no treatments being approved to take at home, the scientists are aiming to uncover whether the antibiotics speed up a patient’s recovery and prevent them being taken to hospital.
Dubbed an “urgent public health study”, the trial has been supported by all four of the UK’s chief medical officers (CMOs).
“I would urge anyone who is contacted to take part in this trial to do so and contribute to helping our world-class scientists find a treatment that will save lives,” said Professor Chris Whitty, CMO for England.
All four of the UK’s CMOs, as well as the NHS’s medical director, have written to doctors strongly encouraging they enrol coronavirus patients on to trials like the Oxford scientists’, which is called Principle.
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“As soon as we find that any one of the drugs in our trial is making a critical difference to people’s health, we want it to be part of clinical practice as soon as it can be introduced,” wrote the Oxford team.
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Anyone over 65 who has developed coronavirus symptoms in the past 14 days can sign up for the trial.
People aged 50 or over with underlying health issues like asthma, heart disease or high blood pressure may also be eligible. The vast majority of coronavirus patients who become seriously ill are elderly or have co-morbidities.
Individuals who test positive for the coronavirus and have shortness of breath, diarrhoea or generally feel unwell, to name a few symptoms, may also be able to take part.
Following an online questionnaire, eligible volunteers have their medical notes checked to ensure it is safe for them to enrol.
The participants then receive either “usual care” or usual care and one of the antibiotics, which are delivered by their GP or the research team. It is unclear what usual care involves.
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Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections and are ineffective against viruses. Some coronavirus patients, however, develop secondary bacterial infections that may respond to these drugs.
The scientists described azithromycin as a “commonly used antibiotic that is anti-inflammatory, treats community-acquired pneumonia and bacterial chest infections, and has antiviral properties”.
“Doxycycline is another commonly used antibiotic,” they added.
If swabs are available, the participants are tested for the coronavirus and followed over the next 28 days.
No face-to-face visits are required, with people throughout the UK taking part from the comfort of their own home.
The Oxford scientists can remove a treatment if it turns out be ineffective or add another therapy if it shows promise.
The trial, which started in April, initially evaluated the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine.
President Donald Trump announced in May he had been taking the drug for a week and a half, causing first-time prescription rates and online searches for the therapy to soar.
Evidence suggests hydroxychloroquine is ineffective in advanced coronavirus cases and does not help prevent the infection from taking hold.
The Oxford scientists stopped investigating hydroxychloroquine in June.
More than 1,400 participants have been recruited so far, with 1,000 GP practices helping to bring patients onboard.
Eligible people who are interested in taking part can sign up at www.principletrial.org or by calling the trial team on 0800 138 0880.
Scientists from University College London are also testing the anti-viral drugs favipiravir and lopinavir-ritonavir to uncover if they inhibit viral replication within the first few days of illness.
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