B.C. experimenting with malaria and Ebola medications to treat COVID-19 patients

HIV and malaria medications are being used to treat patients with COVID-19 in B.C. as nearly 900 people have tested positive for the virus provincewide.

According to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, and the antiviral Remdesivir — at one point used to to treat Ebola — are currently being tested on patients inside at least one facility in B.C. Outbreaks have occurred inside 12 long-term care homes in the province.

"There has been some experimental use [of the medications] all within the protocols of the international trials that we in Canada are part of," Henry said at her latest coronavirus briefing on Saturday.

Since mid-March, the federal government has been working with international regulators to fast track clinical trials for vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests.

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A vaccine won't be ready for up to 18 months, so researchers have been focused on using existing medications to treat COVID-19.

While some patients have been undergoing the experimental treatment, the bulk of the research in B.C. has been taking place inside labs at the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Henry said.

Touted by Trump, cautioned by Canada

Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir have been tested overseas, particularly in China, Henry said.

Early progress prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to tell a crowd of reporters that anti-malaria medications were showing "very, very encouraging early results."

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

Public health officials were quick to temper expectations — and urge caution — following his remarks. 

Earlier this week, Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Therese Tam urged Canadians not to take medication without the scientific evidence.

"It can be quite dangerous. These drugs are not without side effects. In fact, there are quite significant side effects," said Tam on Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is running a research network called Solidarity that has identified a "vast suite of potential drug therapies and combinations" that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19.

Tam said part of Canada's participation in the network includes making sure patients will receive drugs supported by research. 

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In the U.S. and Canada, health officials have warned that hoarding hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 could hurt others, such as those who take the drug long-term to keep chronic inflammatory diseases like lupus under control.

More therapies on the way

Hydroxychloroquine is also being tested on COVID-19 patients by researchers at the University of Manitoba — a joint trial in conjunction with researchers in Alberta and Minnesota.

Other labs across Canada and the U.S. have ramped up testing on a swath of new drugs in hopes of quelling the widening outbreak.

Dr. Henry says B.C. will continue to do its part in helping determine which medications might be effective.

"Our critical care physicians are watching the data of course that's going on around the world," she said. "So there will be more use of all the potential therapeutics."