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Manitobans who've tested positive for COVID-19 can now sign up for a homegrown clinical trial seeking to determine whether a common malaria medication can be used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A team of researchers at the University of Manitoba is leading the new study — the first of its kind in Canada — which is open to about 1,500 participants in Manitoba, Alberta, Quebec, and the United States.
The researchers are testing to see whether hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat COVID-19.
The drug has typically been used to treat or prevent the infectious disease malaria, and has recently received attention for its potential autoimmune benefits in stopping the coronavirus from replicating, at a cellular level, within the body of the person infected.
Until now, only small studies have been conducted on its potential impact.
Starting Thursday, shipments of either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo will be mailed to clinical trial participants in Manitoba, with shipments in other areas soon to follow.
People who have tested positive for COVID-19 are eligible, as long as they're not hospitalized and are within four days of showing symptoms. Those who have no symptoms but live with someone who's tested positive are also eligible for the trial.
Potential participants can sign up online (covid-19research.ca); those approved will take the medication delivered to them by courier for five days.
Working under pressure in the middle of the pandemic, Dr. Ryan Zarychanski and his team got the clinical trial up and running in less than a week. It's the first of six slated for the province — the others are expected to be geared toward health-care workers and hospitalized patients.
"We've been working almost around-the-clock for the last five days. People have moved mountains for us to get this approved in Canada," said Zarychanski, a critical care physician and hematologist, who's also an associate professor at the U of M department of internal medicine.
"We have no proven treatments, and without clinical trials, we can go through this whole pandemic not knowing which drug was beneficial, which drugs weren't, what we should continue to use and what we should abandon," he said.
"And so I really felt a strong moral imperative to provide an environment for as many Manitobans as possible to have access to a clinical trial, so we know exactly what works."
The researchers hope to find out within the next month whether hydroxychloroquine is an effective COVID-19 treatment.
If it is, they'll ensure all trial participants get the drug and open up wider access; if it isn't, they'll move on to another potential counter-measure.
The first clinical trial involving hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment was conducted in China, involving 30 participants. The results, publicized Wednesday, indicated the drug wasn't effective.
The Chinese study had "interesting, discrepant" results, Zarychanski said. "But we really need large, randomized controlled trials to understand if a drug is truly effective or not."
He and his team have other COVID-19 trials in the works, including one expected to test whether a type of blood-thinner could reduce inflammation and make the virus less able to attach itself to human cells.
"We stopped everything we were doing and we started COVID trials because they were that important to Manitoba," he said.
"Although this is the first one, there is a small, growing and dedicated army of clinical researchers, PhD researchers and research staff who have all come to help lead these trials in Manitoba — so that every Manitoban, hopefully, will have access to an experimental therapy and can contribute to knowledge generation in our province and throughout the world."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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Updated on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at 7:06 PM CDT: Adds photo
11:40 PM: Adds hyperlink to body of story.