Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.

RSS Feed

Scientists are zeroing in on how to treat COVID-19 The world needs an effective treatment right away.

COVID-19 may infect much of population in many countries. From its origins in Wuhan, China, it has proven lethal in a small but alarming fraction of cases. The principal risk is pneumonia in elderly or already ill patients. There will be no vaccine for at least a year. The world needs an effective treatment right away.

There are grounds for hope: Help may be on the way.

China’s scientists have two advantages

World needs an effective treatment right away for COVID-19

Coronavirus CDCP

China’s scientists have two advantages in searching for a way to treat the new virus: They got a head start in Wuhan; and they have lots of infected patients. They have been putting these advantages to good use.

The obvious way to find a fast, effective treatment is to see if existing drugs, known to be safe, kill the new coronavirus. Recently published tests in China showed that low doses of two existing drugs (remdesivir and chloroquine) kill the coronavirus when it is grown in cultured mammalian cells.

These tests do not show effectiveness in people: Do these drugs help COVID-19 patients to get well?

386 clinical trials underway

Tests of drugs in people are called “clinical trials”. Since 2005, China has had a non-profit registry of clinical trials underway. It is affiliated with the World Health Organization.

As of March 12 CST, the registry showed 386 clinical trials underway related to Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (COVID-19).

World needs an effective treatment right away for COVID-19

China Clinical Trials

Of the two drugs, chloroquine is of greater interest because it has a long record as the standard treatment for millions of malaria victims. By contrast, remdesivir was developed recently to treat Marburg virus and Ebola and has had limited human application to date.

Twenty-two of China’s current clinical trials relate specifically to chloroquine; the first started February 3. Of these, at least three are randomized, double-blind studies—the gold standard for any clinical trial.

In this kind of study, patients are randomly assigned to get the new drug or a placebo and neither the patients nor the study staff know which is which until after the test is concluded.

None of the current clinical trials in China are testing remdesivir. This antiviral drug was reportedly given to the first US victim, who had developed pneumonia, and who then recovered. This does not demonstrate an effective treatment.

In sum, many trials of possible treatments for COVID-19 patients are underway in China. We should soon know if chloroquine is effective. If it is, the world will have a way to stop this bug overwhelming healthcare facilities.

It could be a game changer.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Chinese Clinical Trial Registry,

One Comment

  1. Michael McKernan 2020-03-13 at 9:20 am #

    Very helpful overview of the vectors towards a treatment. At least to me, it’s more impressive that you so readily were able to learn about the state of clinical trials in China. I hadn’t understood that such transparency exists. So it’s encouraging to me that at least that part of its scientific society maintains such ready global access to its research registries. That said, I wonder why so relatively few (3/23) of the trails reported are of the randomized, double-blind class so necessary for greater medical confidence in the test results. Especially with the need so high, and with such a large population of affected people potentially available to develop test protocols for….

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.