Desperate to solve the deadly conundrum of COVID-19, the world is clamoring for fast answers and solutions from a research system not built for haste.
The ironic, and perhaps tragic, result: Scientific shortcuts have slowed understanding of the disease and delayed the ability to find out which drugs help, hurt or have no effect at all.
As deaths from the coronavirus relentlessly mounted into the hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of doctors and patients rushed to use drugs before they could be proved safe or effective. A slew of low-quality studies clouded the picture even more.
Doctors are still frantically reaching for anything else that might fight the many ways the virus can do harm, experimenting with medicines for stroke, heartburn, blood clots, gout, depression, inflammation, AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, arthritis and even stem cells and radiation.
“Everyone has been kind of grasping for anything that might work. And that’s not how you develop sound medical practice,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic researcher and frequent adviser to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Desperation is not a strategy. Good clinical trials represent a solid strategy.”
Few definitive studies have been done in the U.S., with some undermined by people getting drugs on their own or lax methods from drug companies sponsoring the work.
It wasn’t until mid-June — nearly six months in — when the first evidence came that a drug could improve survival. Researchers in the United Kingdom managed to enroll one of every six hospitalized COVID-19 patients into a large study that found a cheap steroid called dexamethasone helps and that a widely used malaria drug does not. The study changed practice overnight, even though results had not been published or reviewed by other scientists.