The hospitals, which have only just made the study public, have been testing the effectiveness of famotidine, the active ingredient in over-the-counter heartburn medications like Pepcid.
Hospitals in the Northwell Health network in the New York City area have been using large doses of famotidine in IV form to treat patients critically ill with the COVID-19 virus. The 187 patients in the study group have been given daily doses of famotidine roughly nine times the dose prescribed for heartburn.
The medicine is given in combination with the drug hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that President Donald Trump has touted as a medication that shows great promise as a treatment for the virus.
The first COVID-19 patients at Northwell Health in the New York City area began receiving famotidine intravenously on April 7 after Northwell gained permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and after about half of the vials of the injectable version of famotidine Northwell intended to get were secured.
No results have been announced from the study yet. Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, told CNN he hopes results from the use of the drug combination could be ready in a few weeks.
The hospital hopes to enroll 1,174 patients in the study, Tracey said.
Tracey told CNN that Northwell Health did not announce any news about the study because the hospital system feared that media attention could lead to a potential run on famotidine.
How does it work?
According to reports from China, famotidine appears to bind to a key enzyme in the COVID-19 virus. Researchers hope the drug will act as a “decoy,” ABC reports, keeping COVID-19 busy, preventing it from spreading throughout the body.
How did they decide on famotidine?
Michael Callahan, an infectious disease physician based at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was in China when the COVID-19 outbreak happened, according to Science Magazine.
As Callahan, along with Chinese doctors, was studying medical histories of patients infected with the virus, they noticed that many survivors had been taking heartburn medication prior to becoming ill with COVID-19.
Callahan said he and his colleagues realized that poorer patients in that group were having better outcomes from the illness. They realized that the poorer patients taking heartburn medication prior to becoming ill had been taking famotidine which is a much less expensive medication.
Callahan noted that wealthier Chinese on heartburn medication did not seem to do as well. Many of those patients had taken medication that cost more than famotidine.
According to Science Magazine, COVID-19 patients on famotidine appeared to be dying at a rate of about 14% compared with 27% for those not on the drug.
However, Tracey told CNN that it is too early to know if famotidine will benefit COVID-19 patients and warned the public not to buy up the medicine and try it at home.
“You should not go to the drugstore and take a bunch of heartburn medicine,” he told CNN.
“People are hoping for anything. But we need to do this clinical trial.”