A Quebec medical research team has begun recruiting 6,000 Quebecers over the age of 40 who test positive for the novel coronavirus to study whether a powerful drug already approved for other uses could help treat COVID-19.
Researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute have been working day and night to launch the clinical study, named COLCORONA, to find out if colchicine is effective in treating complications of COVID-19.
Colchicine is an orally administered anti-inflammatory drug used to treat gout, Behçet's disease and familial Mediterranean fever.
"Colchicine is an old drug," said Dr. Jean-Claude Tardif, the institute's director of the research, in an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak.
"It's inexpensive; it's widely available, and the reason why we think it might very well work is that it's a powerful anti-inflammatory agent."
Tardif, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Université de Montréal, says the drug could mitigate the lung inflammation which leaves many COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe. That can escalate into an "'inflammatory storm" which can in turn lead to death.
"We are launching the study today because every minute, every hour counts," Tardif said. "We want to deliver the results to the population and the health care system rapidly."
About 125 people from various health organizations — including the Centre hospitalier de l'Université Laval in Quebec City, Health Canada and the Montreal-based firm Pharmascience — worked feverishly to mount the study in six days.
Typically, Tardif said, such an endeavour would take six to nine months.
Researchers hope to recruit 6,000 candidates from Quebec over the age of 40 who test positive for the novel coronavirus but are not in hospital.
Half of those patients will receive colchicine, while the other half will receive a placebo.
"This is not about anecdotes or random observations," Tardif said. "This is about delivering a robust answer for the world."
Successful treatment could transform crisis, says Tardif
Medical research teams in Quebec and around the world have begun clinical testing of proposed vaccines to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but most experts say it could still be 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is approved.
Effective treatment of the severe complications of COVID-19 "would completely transform, instantaneously, what's happening," Tardif said.
"We need to do the study, prove that it works and then give the guidance to the government and health care system," Tardif said.
If researchers can prove the effectiveness of colchicine in treating the disease's respiratory complications before patients need ventilators or they die, Tardif says quarantining people might no longer be necessary.
Quebec gives $7M to Medicago for vaccine testing
The clinical study is one of several Quebec-based initiatives to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Medicago, the Quebec City biotech firm that developed a potential COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March, has received $7 million in funding from Investissement Québec, the Quebec government's investment arm.
The funds will "will allow us to quickly start the first phase of testing of our COVID-19 vaccine candidate before initiating clinical trials in humans this summer," said Dr. Bruce D. Clark, Medicago's president and CEO.
Medicago was able to develop the vaccine candidate within 20 days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus. The company uses plants to manufacture vaccines, which allows it to scale up production rapidly — in 2012 it was able to produce 10 million doses of an influenza vaccine for the U.S. defence department.