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URMC hopes are high after COVID-19 drug trial


Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center said Thursday that their part of a national study into a drug called remdesivir showed promising signs for treatment of COVID-19.

URMC is one of nine study sites in the U.S. that have been running a placebo-controlled trial to gauge the effectiveness of the antiviral drug.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has been overseeing the trial, said Wednesday that the results of the study were so promising that patients taking the placebo should be switched over to the drug.

Remdesivir works by suppressing the virus’s replication and helping the body to clear the infection, said Dr. Ann Falsey, one of the directors of the URMC team conducting the study.

“Nobody has any immunity,” she said, so “part of the disease is that there’s a lot of virus in the lungs, causing pneumonia.”
In severe cases, pneumonia overwhelms the body’s ability to transfer oxygen between the lungs and the bloodstream, and patients need to be placed on a ventilator in an effort to save their lives.

The study’s preliminary results indicated that patients treated with remdesivir got better faster than those who did not receive the drug, doctors said.

At URMC, the research team’s leaders received that news in an “emergency phone call” Tuesday night, said Dr. Angela Branche, who co-directed the team with Falsey.
“One of our nurses said that she’s going to go home happy-crying instead of sad-crying, which I think is sort of reflective of just the magnitude of what we’ve been seeing over the last month,” Branche said.

More than 100 people died of COVID-19 in April in Monroe County, according to data from the county public health department. For weeks, the disease had dozens of people on ventilators in local hospitals’ intensive care units. That number has dipped slightly in recent days. 
Dr. Ann Falsey, of the University of Rochester Medical Center's Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, speaks to reporters in a virtual news conference on Thursday. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Dr. Ann Falsey, of the University of Rochester Medical Center's Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, speaks to reporters in a virtual news conference on Thursday.

The preliminary study results were not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the National Institutes of Health released the results after an analysis by the data safety monitoring board overseeing the trial.

Gilead Sciences, the company that developed remdesivir, sponsored another set of trials designed to measure how long patients needed to receive the drug to reap its benefits.

“The ability to shorten duration for severely ill patients means we can significantly increase the number of courses available,” Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day wrote in an open letter the company released Wednesday.
Fauci and URMC doctors said the evidence that the drug works meant doctors now had an ethical responsibility to allow the placebo group to access remdesivir.

The next stage of the study at URMC will continue treating COVID-19 patients with remdesivir. Half will receive the drug alone; the other half will receive remdesivir with the anti-inflammatory medication baricitinib.

The idea, Falsey said, is that remdesivir will help the body fight the virus, and baricitnib will prevent an overzealous immune response that doctors theorize is responsible for some of the sudden deterioration in COVID-19 patients.

Includes reporting by Jeremy Moule.

Brett Dahlberg is a health reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. He can be reached at