Rheumatoid arthritis drug tocilizumab has been found to lower death rates in COVID-19 patients. Two recent studies have revealed that the drug offers anti-inflammatory benefits that prevent respiratory failure in people infected with the new coronavirus.

Last week, an observational study published by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor claimed that tocilizumab helped reduce the risk of death of COVID-19 patients by up to 45 percent. The study involved 154 patients hospitalized at Michigan Medicine on mechanical ventilation from March 9 to April 20. Seventy-eight of the patients received tocilizumab while 76 did not.

Patients treated with tocilizumab showed greater improvement than those who received other types of treatment. By the end of the study, 17 patients from each group were still hospitalized. However, only 3 of tocilizumab-treated patients were still receiving mechanical ventilation, versus 8 of controls.

“These data are encouraging and can help to inform clinical practice while results from randomized controlled trials of IL-6 inhibitors are awaited,” wrote the researchers.

In the second study, researchers in Milan found that compared with standard care, the rheumatoid arthritis drug helped cut the death rate of coronavirus patients by half. The study compared the outcomes of 74 COVID-19 patients treated with the drug with those of 148 controls.

While patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms did not seem to benefit from tocilizumab, those who had severe COVID-19 showed improved survival compared with controls. However, the researchers noted that they had longer hospital stays, primarily due to biochemical, respiratory, and infectious adverse events.

“This study confirms the potential effectiveness of tocilizumab on COVID-19—especially in critically ill patients—with a reliable comparison group that allows to weigh the potential clinical impact of this treatment,” wrote the researchers. “Nevertheless, we suggest using it cautiously due to drug-related adverse events, remarkably transitory respiratory worsening, and bacterial infections,” they added.

Several trials of tocilizumab in COVID-19 patients with different study designs, drug combinations, and target combinations are still underway and are expected to yield more details on the use of the drug in treating coronavirus patients.

coronavirus COVID-19 testing australia
COVID-19 testing staff are seen at a pop-up site at Keilor Community Hub on June 24, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. A man in his 80s died overnight in Victoria from coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 20. The death is the first COVID-19 fatality for Victoria in many weeks and also comes as 20 new coronavirus cases were confirmed today. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday warned of another possible lockdown should cases continue to rise, and has extended the state of emergency for at least four weeks to allow police the power to enforce social distancing rules. Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

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