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UM researchers exploring whether drug could limit coronavirus infections

FILE - In this Thursday, April 9, 2020 file photo, a chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India. Scientists in Brazil have stopped part of a study of the malaria drug touted as a possible coronavirus treatment after heart rhythm problems developed in one-quarter of people given the higher of two doses being tested. Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, have been pushed by President Donald Trump after some early tests suggested the drugs might curb coronavirus entering cells. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

FILE – In this Thursday, April 9, 2020 file photo, a chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India. Scientists in Brazil have stopped part of a study of the malaria drug touted as a possible coronavirus treatment after heart rhythm problems developed in one-quarter of people given the higher of two doses being tested. Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, have been pushed by President Donald Trump after some early tests suggested the drugs might curb coronavirus entering cells. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers are investigating whether taking an anti-malaria drug could prevent infection and symptoms from exposure to people with COVID-19.

The study hopes to find whether hydroxychloroquine could help limit the spread of the disease by people who do not show symptoms.

“We know that many COVID-19-positive individuals have mild or no symptoms but are still very contagious,”  said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, a principal investigator in the study and director of the Center of Vaccine Development and Global Health. “If we can prevent infection or symptoms in individuals who have been exposed to them, we can significantly alter the course of this pandemic.”

The research is part of a national study led by the University of Washington. The national study is part of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator,an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard that hopes to speed up the response to the pandemic by funding treatments for the disease.

The University of Maryland team also includes Dr. Miriam Laufer, associated director of the Center of Vaccine Development and Global Health’s Malaria Research Program. Laufer has spent years researching hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness in children, pregnant women and people living with HIV, the university said.

Hydroxychloroquine has gained prominence during the pandemic response, with President Donald Trump touting the drug as an effective treatment for people with symptoms of the disease despite limited evidence.

Gov. Larry Hogan last week issued an executive order banning prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and azithromycin for cases of undiagnosed COVID-19 or as a preventive therapy for COVID-19. Clinical trials and hospital use were exempted from the order.

The researchers hope to find out whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent people who have recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19 from becoming infected. They are coordinating with public health officials and testing facilities in the Baltimore-Washington area to find people who may have been exposed.

“Our goal is to reach adult family and household members who live with someone who has recently been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Laufer said in a statement. “To be able to really see how to best protect these exposed individuals, we need to enroll as many people as we can into this study. … Most COVID-19 infection is transmitted within households, so we are working to protect the health of the individuals in the family and limit the broader spread of COVID-19 infection.”

The study is being conducted remotely through online video calls and email surveys.

The study involves giving some individuals either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo every day for 14 days. The participants will then answer questions about their symptoms and swab the inside of their nose every day for another 14 days.

This should allow researchers to determine fairly quickly whether hydroxychloroquine is effective at limiting the spread of the disease, Ruanne Barnabas, the national study’s principal investigator and a professor  of global health at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

“Our goal is to stop transmission of COVID-19 in the community,” Barnabas said. “We currently don’t know if hydroxychloroquine works, but through this study we will learn in as short a time frame as possible whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent transmission in people exposed to the virus.”

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