UIC testing antiviral drug against the coronavirus as hospital sees ‘surge’ of cases

The University of Illinois at Chicago is on the front line in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic after staff began testing an antiviral drug Wednesday that could help hospitalized patients fight the coronavirus.

Dr. Richard Novak, chief of infectious disease at the university, said a study the school is participating in will help determine whether remdesivir, an antiviral drug that was initially tested against ebola in West Africa, could lead to more positive outcomes for COVID-19 patients.

Half of the patients in the double-blind study will receive a placebo and the other half will receive remdesivir, with the results being sent to the National Institutes of Health. UIC is one of about 75 testing sites for the drug, Novak said, along with Northwestern University.

“We don’t know if it works,” Novak said Thursday. “It could be a total failure, but if you don’t do this type of testing, you won’t know the answer.”

Novak said the drug appeared to work well against ebola and that testing in the laboratory and with animals has shown it could be effective against coronavirus, as well.

“I think it will have some effect,” Novak said. “Will it be a miracle drug? Probably not, but who knows.”

Dr. Richard Novak, chief of infectious disease at the University of Illinois at Chicago.Provided

Even the doctors at UI Health won’t know what patients receive the drug versus those who get the placebo, Novak said. The National Institutex of Health will determine the efficacy of the drug and make recommendations of whether to continue the study, disband it or to start giving it more widely to patients if the results are positive — a process that could take weeks or months.

Novak said that COVID-19 patients cannot transfer into the hospital to take part in the study and that only people who are admitted into the hospital and are selected will be enrolled.

“People can’t be walking in off the street to get this,” Novak said.

Novak said he expects the university will also be involved in future trials for other antiviral drugs to help determine which drug is most effective against the virus, as well as testing for a potential vaccine down the line.

‘It will continue to get worse’

Novak said that the university’s healthcare system has seen a growing influx of COVID-19 patients — and the number of patients is expected to rapidly grow in the coming weeks.

“We’re getting a surge here at UIC. They doubled overnight and we have two intensive care units that are full,” Novak said. “We are expecting it will continue to get worse.”

One of the more worrying things Novak has seen is the number of patients who look like they have mild symptoms or are improving that suddenly take a turn for the worse.

“This disease is really insidious,” Novak warned. “A week into it you can just sort of crash. People don’t realize they are getting out of breath … and then their lungs fill up with fluid.”

Particularly concerning, he said was how infectious the virus is and how quickly it spreads, particularly in families, where doctors were “seeing cases start to cluster” after one person has been exposed.

‘Social distancing is very important’

Where a person might have contracted the disease is getting less important to medical professionals, Novak said, because the virus is now spreading generally in the community and the origin point can be hard to pin down.

He said reports that people are still congregating in the city are concerning.

“I think people just don’t get it when they say its like the flu. It’s not. It’s much more contagious and much more deadly,” Novak warned. “Especially for older people.”

He believes social distancing restrictions will need to be in place for weeks or more before they are allowed to abide and told young people who believe they are invincible against the virus to consider the health of their parents and grandparents.

“We’re still on the upswing. It’s gonna get much worse,” he said.