WHO recommends arthritis drugs for treatment of severe COVID-19 cases

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Officials say the medicines reduce the risk of death and the need for mechanical ventilation

Findings from a study published Tuesday showed that two arthritis drugs -- tocilizumab and sarilumab -- cut the risk of death and the need for ventilators among hospitalized COVID-19 patients. 

The study prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to recommend using the arthritis medicines (known as IL-6 inhibitors) along with corticosteroids for COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms.

“Patients severely or critically ill with COVID-19 often suffer from an overreaction of the immune system, which can be very harmful to the patient’s health. Interleukin-6 blocking drugs – tocilizumab and sarilumab – act to suppress this overreaction,” the WHO said in a statement.

The WHO said its own analysis found that patients’ risk of dying within 28 days of getting one of the arthritis drugs along with corticosteroids was 21%; that compared to a 25% risk among patients who got standard care. That means that for every 100 such patients, four more will survive, the WHO said. 

The risk of patients needing mechanical ventilation or dying was 26% compared to 33% when they received standard care. For every 100 patients that would have progressed in this manner, seven more will survive without the need for ventilators, the group said.  

"We have updated our clinical care treatment guidance to reflect this latest development," WHO Health Emergencies official Janet Diaz said.

Expanding access

Tocilizumab and sarilumab are given by infusion or injection. The World Health Organization said it recommended use of the drugs based on the study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as well as its own analysis of data from 28 countries. 

The WHO said it’s hoping that more will be done to improve access to these drugs in low income countries that are currently dealing with spikes in cases and low vaccine supplies. 

“These drugs offer hope for patients and families who are suffering from the devastating impact of severe and critical COVID-19. But IL-6 receptor blockers remain inaccessible and unaffordable for the majority of the world,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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