Israeli HIV drug used to treat coronavirus patients in Congo

Local researchers in Republic of the Congo note improvement among HIV patients with COVID-19, conduct small trial that confirms outcome

Antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV infection spill out of a pill bottle.  (photo credit: NIAID/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV infection spill out of a pill bottle.
Medical researchers in the Republic of the Congo have discovered that an Israeli-developed HIV drug apparently can be used to successfully treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, the drug might be available within “weeks to months, but not more” after further clinical trials are carried out.
Doctors from the Clinique La Source hospital in the Congolese capital Brazzaville noted that HIV patients who were in critical condition due to COVID-19 showed significant improvement after being administered a drug named Gammora for their HIV symptoms.
Developed by the Israel-based company Zion Medical and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Gammora was recently approved for use in the central African country.
“We were surprised because we wanted to see if [Gammora] would work, but we didn’t know that it would happen like this, and we saw improvement in terms of symptoms of COVID-19 within 48 hours,” Dr. Eynat Finkelshtein, chief scientific officer of Zion Medical, told The Media Line.
A small clinical trial began in Brazzaville on April 8. Conducted under “compassionate use” protocols, which enable seriously ill patients to access new or untested treatments, it was overseen by Clinique La Source’s Dr. Sebastian Mafoundzi alongside Dr. Roger Alphonse Bouity. World Health Organization (WHO) representative Albert Kazadi was called in as a private consultant to supervise.
The trial saw 30 critically ill patients in intensive care – some with HIV, others HIV-free – divided into two groups.
The first group of 15 patients (Group A) received standard-care treatment for HIV and coronavirus, namely antibiotics and the HIV medicine Atripla. The second group (Group B) received the antibiotics, Atripla and Gammora via injection over a period of nine days.
After two days, all 15 patients in Group B showed marked improvement in their COVID-19 symptoms.
“Of the 15 that got Gammora on top of standard care, four of them tested negative [for the virus] after nine days of treatment, and 11 were discharged from the ICU and transferred to the [hospital’s] internal medicine ward” for a full recovery, Finkelshtein said.
As for the 15 members of Group A, 14 died during the same timeframe, and one remains in critical condition.
“We want to conduct larger trials in Western countries,” Finkelshtein said.
A statement that Zion Medical shared with The Media Line said: “It is important to emphasize that Gammora is a cure, and not a vaccination for preventing the disease. Zion Medical acknowledges that it is receiving more and more reports from all over the world that HIV patients suffering from the coronavirus who are receiving Gammora have completely healed from COVID-19.”
Finkelshtein confirmed that the company was now working to secure approval for use of the drug in additional countries. She expects that with the results in Brazzaville, the company will now be able to more easily navigate the bureaucracy of approval procedures.
Critically ill coronavirus patients will also be able to receive Gammora treatments under compassionate use protocols, she stressed. Additionally, larger-scale clinical trials “will take some time to complete, but with this ongoing pandemic, it will be faster than other clinical trials for different diseases.”
Because the drug successfully treated patients within days, she clarified, “the trial will be conducted over a few weeks, maybe months, but not more than that.”
Zion Medical claims it can already make Gammora commercially available via its official distributor, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical provider FarmaMondo. It has already accelerated production of the drug at the California-based PolyPeptide Laboratories ahead of an expected increase in worldwide demand.
After the events in Brazzaville, Kadazi, the WHO representative, notified the world body. It has now requested all pertinent information and reports relating to the trial as soon as possible, in addition to samples of the drug.
Kadazi said in a statement sent to The Media Line: "The success we've seen in experimenting and saving lives strengthens us and gives us hope. We thank Zion Medical for quickly harnessing this and are delighted to share the [good news] with the world."
In the meantime, doctors in the Republic of the Congo continue to administer the drug to coronavirus patients.
“We are still trying to help as much as we can in the Congo, so there are additional patients that are receiving this treatment,” Finkelshtein said.
The African country has reported only some 300 cases of coronavirus since the beginning of the outbreak, but she notes that the reality on the ground is not as “rosy” as official figures would have the world believe. Mafoundzi’s clinic, for example, is receiving more and more patients infected with the virus.
“Even some of our doctors contracted the virus,” Finkelshtein stressed.
Bouity, the other physician, reportedly contracted the virus during the trial and died because he saved the clinic’s stocks of Gammora for use on patients rather than himself.
“It was a heroic act which saved his patients’ life instead of his own,” the Zion Medical statement said.
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