One in 12 critically ill Covid-19 patients could be saved after a discovery that two drugs, already used to treat other conditions, are also effective in treating the potentially deadly virus.
The drugs, which are both available in New Zealand and used as a "last resort" to treat rheumatoid arthritis, reduce the body's natural inflammatory response to the virus by modifying the immune system, speeding up recovery and reducing time needed in intensive care.
Globally, researchers found that 35.8 per cent of critically ill Covid patients went on to die but that dropped to 27.3 per cent for those treated with tocilizumab or sarilumab.
The discovery, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) today, has been described by Kiwi experts as another phenomenal step forward in combating the deadly virus.
"To find a second effective treatment for critically ill Covid-19 patients within a year of a global pandemic is remarkable," Auckland City Hospital's Intensive Care Unit (ICU) boss, Dr Colin McArthur, told the Herald.
It's also welcome news to an Auckland man who lost his 79-year-old mother to Covid last year and said it was frustrating watching doctors and nurses trying to look after her with "no weapon".
"They were helpless ... so yes this is great news. Who knows, maybe one of these drugs could have saved mum," said the man who did not want to be named.
Researchers stressed the two drugs needed to be used in addition to steroid treatments, one being dexamethasone which was found effective late last year.
Pharmac, which funds drugs for use in New Zealand, said it was now looking into whether tocilizumab funding should be extended so it could also be used here on our Covid patients.
Director of operations Lisa Williams said a clinician application to widen the access to tocilizumab for use in people hospitalised with Covid-19 was received yesterday.
"Pharmac will now seek expert clinical advice on this request, which will support an informed decision," Williams said.
McArthur, who has been leading New Zealand's input on behalf of the Medical Research Institute of NZ (MRINZ) since 2016, said New Zealand had limited supply of the inflammatory drugs and may need to order more if approval was granted.
Tocilizumab costs between $220 and $1,100 depending on the size of the dose, Pharmac said.
She said studies like these could place global pressure on products such as tocilizumab, and their suppliers so it was "critical" Pharmac followed up with suppliers on a regular basis.
"Currently, there are no known supply concerns for tocilizumab in New Zealand and we are monitoring stock closely; however, we will continue to follow up on a regular basis to ensure ongoing supply for New Zealand patients."
Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins declined to comment on the development at this stage and referred the Herald to the Ministry of Health.
A spokeswoman said the ministry was aware of international research into how these and other drugs may help treat Covid-19.
"In New Zealand, hospitals use dexamethasone for the treatment of Covid-19. Efficacy has been demonstrated for dexamethasone (a steroid) and it is approved for use in treating Covid-19 infection."
Remap-Cap (Randomised Embedded Multifactorial Adaptive Platform for Community Acquired Pneumonia) is leading the research and has involved the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
A mum lost
A father-of-two remembers the look in his mum's eyes when he walked into her hospital room wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
"She recognised me. I could see it in her eyes," he said.
His wife couldn't be there to hold his hand because Covid-19 restrictions limited hospital visits to one person and only for special circumstances.
"Selfishly, I feel trapped, committed to coming here alone every day to watch helplessly as my mother ebbs away. The doctor leaves me in the corridor and I call my wife, desperate for comfort and connection," he told the Herald last April, only two months after the unknown virus hit New Zealand.
The man said his 79-year-old mother still had years to live.
"Her grandson is about to graduate university. That's something she would have loved to have been there for."
He said one of his biggest frustrations leading up to his mother's death was that the nurses and doctors had no weapon to work with.
"They were helpless...so yes this is great news. Who knows maybe one of these drugs could have saved mum."
He wanted to remind New Zealanders of the severity of Covid-19.
"We expected her to live but she didn't."