- Drug - known as SNG001 - trialled on 100 hospitalised Covid-19 patients in UK
- Uses a protein called interferon beta which body produces to fight off viruses
- Inhaled directly into the lungs using a nebuliser to boost immune response
An inhaled drug cuts the risk of Covid-19 patients falling seriously ill with the life-threatening infection, according to scientists trialling the experimental treatment.
Initial results from the trial of more than 100 hospitalised Covid-19 patients found it prevented 79 per cent of them from needing intensive care, suggesting it stops the disease in its tracks.
The treatment also slashed the average time patients spent in hospital by a third, down from an average of nine days to just six.
The drug — known as SNG001 — uses a protein called interferon beta which the body produces when it fights a viral infection.
It has been developed by Southampton-based pharmaceutical firm Synairgen and trialled by researchers from the city's university.
Scientists believe they have found an inhaler (pictured) that blocks coronavirus from progressing in the lungs
The treatment sees patients inhale the drug directly into the lungs using a nebuliser, where it helps the immune system fight off viral infection.
The preliminary results from the trial haven't yet been verified because the research hasn't been published in a scientific journal or scrutinised by other scientists.
But independent experts say it would 'represent by far the biggest breakthrough in Covid-19 treatment to date' if the results are verified.
The only drug scientifically proven to treat the disease at present is a £5 steroid known as dexamethasone, which slashes death rates by up to a third.
Southampton-based Synairgen is a publicly traded firm, meaning it was obligated to release the preliminary results due to stock market rules.
The trial involved 101 Covid-19 patients who had been admitted at nine UK hospitals and required oxygen support. Half of the recruits were given the drug, while the rest took a placebo.
The trial was carried out on a double blind basis, meaning neither the researchers nor the 101 patients knew who was receiving SNG001.
It found the risk of developing severe disease — needing ventilation or dying — was reduced by 79 per cent in those receiving the drug compared to the control group.
Three people died after being randomly assigned the placebo, while there were no deaths among those who received the drug, Synairgen said.
Studies have shown key high risk groups for Covid-19, including older people and those with some chronic diseases have lower levels of interferon beta.
Separate trials in asthmatic patients have shown SNG001 is well-tolerated, boosts the lungs anti-viral defences and helps lung function during cold or flu infection.
The inhaler turns SNG001 into a fine mist so it can be inhaled deep into the lungs, with the hope it will trigger a stronger, more targeted anti-viral response.
Interferon beta is already used as an injection to boost the immune response of people with multiple sclerosis.
The trial's chief investigator, Tom Wilkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton, said if the results are replicated in larger studies it will be 'a game changer'.
He added: 'The results confirm our belief that interferon beta, a widely known drug that, by injection, has been approved for use in a number of other indications, has huge potential as an inhaled drug to be able to restore the lungs' immune response, enhancing protection, accelerating recovery and countering the impact of Sars-CoV-2 virus.'
Stephen Holgate CBE, professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said recognising that the coronavirus 'is known to have evolved to evade the initial anti-viral response of the lung' was a valuable insight.
'Our treatment of giving high local concentrations of interferon beta, a naturally occurring antiviral protein, restores the lungs ability to neutralise the virus,' added Professor Holgate, who is also the co-founder of Synairgen.
He said it would work on 'any mutation of the virus or co-infection with another respiratory virus such as RSV or influenza, as could be encountered in the winter if there is a resurgence of Covid-19'.
Reacting to the findings, Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, tweeted: 'Preliminary results from a clinical trial suggest interferon beta reduces the risk of developing severe #COVID19 disease by 79 per cent.
'If confirmed, this would represent by far the biggest breakthrough in #COVID19 treatment to date.'
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, added: 'The results seem very impressive, and although accepted that the trial is small with just over 100 participants, a 79 per cent reduction in disease severity could be a game changer.
'It would be good to see the full results once presented and peer-reviewed to make sure they are robust and the trial conduct was rigorous.
'Also, with small numbers comes less certainty on the true level of benefit, or whether benefits vary between people with differing risk characteristics. Such work would require a larger trial but, even so, these results are very exciting.'
But Professor Steve Goodacre, an expert in emergency medicine at the University of Sheffield, said: 'These results are not interpretable.
'We need the full details and, perhaps more importantly, the trial protocol. The trial should have been registered and a protocol made available before any analysis was undertaken.'
Synairgen will now have to present its findings to medical regulators around the world before it is approved.
Health chiefs will review the findings and decide whether to approve the treatment so doctors can treat Covid-19 patients with it.
The firm's chief executive Richard Marsden told the BBC it would be able to deliver a 'few hundred thousands' of doses each month by the winter.
Because the study was quite small — only involving 100 patients — the trial may have to be scaled up before getting approval.
This process could take months, although governments around the world might be open to fast-tracking the drug if they are impressed by the findings.
British ministers have approved the Ebola drug remdesivir for emergency use on patients suffering life-threatening symptoms of Covid — despite evidence about its effectiveness still being mixed.
Only one drug, the £5 steroid dexamethasone, has so far been conclusively proven to treat coronavirus.
The Recovery trial found it reduced the risk of death by 35 per cent for patients on ventilators — the most dangerously ill — and by a fifth for all patients needing oxygen at any point.