New York hospitals are studying a common heartburn drug as treatment for Covid-19
Hospitals in New York are giving Covid-19 patients heartburn medicine to see if it helps fight the virus, according to the doctor who initiated the trial.
Preliminary results of the clinical trial of famotidine, the active ingredient in Pepcid, could come out in the next few weeks, said Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, which runs 23 hospitals in the New York City area.
So far, 187 patients have enrolled in the clinical trial, and Northwell eventually hopes to enroll 1,200, he said.
“There are many examples in the history of medicine where a drug that was designed for one purpose turns out to have an effect in another disease,” Tracey said.
He said if famotidine works — and that’s a big if at this point — it would be easy to use it on a widespread scale.
“It’s generic, it’s plentiful and it’s inexpensive,” he said.
But he emphasized that it might not work.
“We don’t know if it has any benefit. We really don’t. I swear we don’t,” he said. “People are hoping for anything. But we need to do this clinical trial.”
He also emphasized that the patients in the study are in the hospital taking mega-doses intravenously — doses about nine times what someone would normally take for heartburn.
“You should not go to the drugstore and take a bunch of heartburn medicine,” he said.
Learning from Chinese patients’ medications
Tracey and his colleagues got the idea to study famotidine after it was observed that some patients in China taking the drug fared better than patients not taking the drug.
He said studies on the Chinese patients have not yet been published, but that Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who worked with coronavirus patients in China, observed that some people with lower incomes were surviving longer than their wealthier counterparts who also had heartburn.
When Callahan and the Chinese doctors looked closer, they found that many of the people with lower incomes were taking famotidine, whereas the wealthier patients tended to take a different, more expensive drug.
“The poor peasants really seemed to do well on famotidine,” Tracey said. “There are a lot of anecdotes passing around that give us some hope.”
The famotidine study was first reported in Science Magazine.
Tracey said in addition to the observation in Chinese patients, Florida-based Alchem Laboratories used a computer model to make a list of existing drugs that might fight coronavirus, and famotidine showed up near the top of the list.
He said that’s because, theoretically, the structure of famotidine is such that it could stop the virus from replicating, in the same way that protease inhibitors, which are used to treat HIV, stop that virus.