By Michelle Roberts
Digital health editor

Image source, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trus

UK experts say they have found another life-saving drug that can help people ill with Covid.

The anti-inflammatory baricitinib is normally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Trials suggest it can cut death risk by about a fifth in patients needing hospital care for severe Covid.

It could be used with other Covid treatments, such as the cheap steroid dexamethasone, to save even more lives, researchers say.

The NHS may soon recommend baricitinib based on these new results. A 10-day course of the pills costs around £250, although the NHS may be able to negotiate a discount.

Protecting lives

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “A big thank you to all of the researchers, doctors and volunteers involved in this work.

“Our medical and scientific experts will now consider the results before any decisions are made on next steps.”

Although vaccines have been doing a great job at cutting infections and protecting lives, some people will still catch and become very sick with Covid.

And the Recovery trial has been testing existing medications on Covid patients to see if they help.

It has already identified dexamethasone, tocilizumab and a treatment called Ronapreve – discoveries that have changed clinical practice worldwide and been credited with saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives, experts say.

And now it appears some very ill Covid patients, including those on ventilators, fare much better if they receive baricitinib.

The benefit was on top of other proven life-saving Covid drugs.

‘Something positive’

One of the patients enrolled on the trial, Mark Rivvers, 51, from Cambridge, 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.”

There are now many drugs that can help fight Covid:

  • anti-inflammatory drugs that stop the immune system overreacting with deadly consequences
  • anti-viral drugs that make it harder for the coronavirus to replicate inside the body
  • antibody therapies that mimic the immune system to attack the virus

Recovery trial joint chief investigator Sir Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology, at Oxford Population Health, said: “It is now well established that in people admitted to hospital because of severe Covid, an overactive immune response is a key driver of lung damage.

“Today’s results not only show that treatment with baricitinib improves the chances of survival for patients with severe Covid-19 but that this benefit is additional to that from other treatments that dampen down the overactive immune response, such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab.

“This opens up the possibility of using combinations of anti-inflammatory drugs to further drive down the risk of death for some of the sickest patients.”

The Recovery Trial has been a pandemic success story.

With more than 47,000 participants across the UK, it is the biggest study of Covid treatments in the world.

The treatments it has discovered have saved countless lives.

But its latest drug, baricitinib, was uncovered with the help of some DNA detective work.

It has been looking for answers in people’s genes, comparing intensive-care patients’ genomes with healthy people’s DNA.

And it has pinpointed some key genetic differences – including one in the TYK2 gene.

If this gene is faulty, the immune response can go into overdrive.

And this genetic discovery led to baricitinib being added to the Recovery trial’s list of treatments.

Genetics is crucial for understanding how Covid-19 affects the body – and combining this DNA knowhow with a major clinical trial has provided another weapon in the fight against coronavirus.