Arthritis drug tocilizumab cuts deaths from Covid

By Michelle Roberts
Health editor, BBC News online

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image copyrightPA Media

A drug normally used to treat arthritis can be a life-saver for some of the sickest hospital patients with Covid, new research shows.

For every 25 patients treated with tocilizumab, along with a cheap steroid already routinely given, an additional life would be saved, the experts say.

Some hospitals are now doing this.

As well as improving survival and recovery time, it can avoid patients needing to be moved to intensive care, say the NHS doctors.

Wendy Coleman, 62, received the treatment last year when she was admitted to Chesterfield Royal Hospital with severe Covid-19.

image copyrightWendy Coleman
image captionWendy Coleman volunteered to take part in the trial

"I was struggling to breathe quite badly and on the verge of being placed in an intensive care unit.

"After I was given tocilizumab, my condition stabilised and I didn't get any worse. Up until then, it was quite scary as I didn't know if I was going to make it or not," she said.

Tremendous result

Researchers say around half of people admitted to hospital with Covid could benefit from the treatment.

They have carried out a clinical trial with more than 4,000 volunteers, like Wendy, and say the results are "tremendous".

Half of these Covid patients were given tocilizumab, via a drip, alongside usual care with a life-saving cheap steroid drug called dexamethasone.

In that group, compared to another group that did not receive the new drug:

  • tocilizumab cut death risk - 596 (29%) of the patients in the tocilizumab group died within 28 days compared with 694 (33%) patients in the usual care group
  • and it reduced the chance of a patient needing to go on a ventilator or dying from 38% to 33%

Combined, tocilizumab and dexamethasone should cut death risk by about a third for patients on oxygen and halve it for those on a ventilator, the researchers say.

Prof Martin Landray, joint chief investigator of the RECOVERY trial and a medical expert at Oxford University, said: "Used in combination, the impact is substantial. This is good news for patients and good news for the health services that care for them in the UK and around the world."

Dr Charlotte Summers, an intensive care medic at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, said: "These findings are a tremendous step forwards. This therapy looks like it keeps people out of the intensive care unit so they never need to see people like me which can only be a good thing."

The treatment isn't cheap, costing around £500 per patient on top of the £5 course of dexamethasone. But the advantage of using it is clear - and less than the cost per day of an intensive care bed of around £2,000.

The drugs dampen down inflammation, which can go into overdrive in Covid patients and cause damage to the lungs and other organs.

The preliminary trial results will soon be submitted to a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: "We are working quickly and closely with colleagues across the health system and sector to ensure every NHS patient who needs this treatment should be able to access it - reducing further pressures on the NHS and potentially saving thousands of lives."

NHS national medical director Prof Stephen Powis said it was another breakthrough in the fight against coronavirus.

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