New lifesaving Covid-19 treatments currently used overseas are being urgently investigated by local health authorities and in some cases already being given to Kiwi patients, the director-general of health says.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield today gave an update on the ways doctors are treating Covid-19 patients in New Zealand - partly as a way to respond to alarming misinformation about treatments spreading on social media.
He said Covid-19 is an infectious virus that can cause harm in two main ways.
This included the damage done by the virus' attack on the body as well as the harmful effects that some patients' own immune systems did to their bodies when overreacting to the virus.
The latest medical treatments seeking to combat these ill effects could be classified into three main "domains", Bloomfield said.
The first group are antiviral drugs that limit the virus' ability to replicate and thrive in the body.
The second are drugs to calm the immune overreactions occurring in some patients, particularly those who are seriously unwell and in intensive care.
And the third group are "antibody treatments" that help the body fight the virus.
"Even though there have been relatively few cases in New Zealand, we are up to date in terms of our knowledge and use of appropriate treatments," Bloomfield said.
"We have good processes in place to assess emerging and new treatments and a fast and proven approval process when we decide on which ones we want to use here."
He gave the update on treatments in a bid to give Kiwis accurate information about the virus and its treatment.
Claims on social media the body's natural immunity or doses of Vitamin C are enough to fight Covid-19, meaning there is no need to get tested or vaccinated, are not true, Bloomfield said.
"This is an infectious virus that can cause serious and ongoing health problems, not just the acute infectious illness, but long Covid symptoms also," he said.
Nor had the drug Ivermectin - which is typically used to de-worm livestock but latched on to by people opposed to Covid-19 vaccines globally - been shown to be either effective of safe in treating the virus, he said.
However, he said there are existing drugs already used to treat Covid as well as potentially exciting new treatments now emerging.
One of the best known treatments so far is remdesivir, an antiviral drug that has been used overseas and in New Zealand for "quite a while" to try and stop the Covid-19 virus from replicating and spreading in the body.
Another drug called dexamethasone is also currently used to stop patients' immune systems from overreacting and attacking their bodies.
"[It] is a standard and widely used steroid, and it has been part of our routine treatment protocols here for sometime for people who are very unwell in ICU," Bloomfield said.
Most attention of late, however has turned to "monoclonal antibody" drugs.
"Studies have shown that one of these, a monoclonal antibody called tocilizumab, may help hospitalised patients by reducing the severity of their infection and the length of time they require in hospital," Bloomfield said.
He said the Government's Pharmac agency is set to soon make a decision about whether it would fund tocilizumab so it could be offered to all Covid patients suffering moderate to severe illness.
So far it had already funded the drug to be used in the treatment of 30 Covid patients on an exception basis in which each case was individually approved by Pharmac.
In addition to tocilizumab, there are several other monoclonal antibodies in trials or already approved overseas under emergency authorisation, Bloomfield said.
Pharmac is now actively discussing potentially funding the supply of those drugs into New Zealand, he said.
Among these, two new treatments are showing the most promise.
The first is ronapreve, which is showing benefit in the early treatment of Covid-19 and can help stop cases from becoming severe, Bloomfield said.
It has been approved for use in the UK and an application seeking its approval for use here in New Zealand has been made to the regulator Medsafe.
The second is new treatment is called sotrovimab and there is "good data coming through from evidence in trials" of the drug with the Ministry of Health seeking to encourage an application for the drug's approval to be submitted to Medsafe.
In the meantime, any of one these drugs can be already prescribed to a Covid patient by a doctor, despite the drugs not being officially approved for that use, Bloomfield said.
The only issue would be whether they are already available here in New Zealand, he said.
Most are already used in New Zealand to treat other medical conditions.
Bloomfield emphasised all the treatments discussed were not designed to replace vaccinations.
Vaccination remained the best way to reduce the chances of suffering a severe illness or dying due to Covid-19, he said.
He also said there have been cases of unvaccinated pregnant women arriving in hospital with Covid, and urged expectant mums to get the jab.
"It's timely to remind anyone in the country who is expecting a baby about the importance of getting vaccinated. We have seen some unvaccinated pregnant women arriving in hospital with Covid-19, quite unwell as a result of the virus," Bloomfield said.
"It's now very clear from experience globally and our experience here with a large number of pregnant people vaccinated that there are no additional safety concerns with getting the Covid-19 Pfizer vaccine.
"It is safe in any stage in pregnancy and vaccinating during pregnancy also helps protect your baby as there is evidence that infants can get antibodies of the virus through cord blood and then once they are born through breast milk."