AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There are no proven therapies for COVID-19, but that has not stopped doctors from trying a variety of drugs in the hopes that something might work. While that may be an understandable impulse, researchers say that might not be such a great idea. Joining us to explain why is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Hey, Joe.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK, so there are many drugs out there that we've been hearing about that might work as a therapy for the disease. I mean, President Trump has been especially optimistic about a malaria drug called - I hope I'm going to get this right - hydroxychloroquine.
PALCA: Brilliant. Perfect.
CHANG: What are some of the risks of just trying that drug out and just seeing what happens?
PALCA: Well, the problem is you don't know for sure, if somebody gets better, whether the drug did that or, if somebody gets worse, the drug did that. I mean, there's just no way to tell unless you study it. Now, Andre Kalil is an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and he says you have to remember all drugs have side effects. And it's dangerous to just throw drugs at a patient who, in many cases - in patients who, in many cases, are quite sick.
ANDRE KALIL: It's really a disaster. People are taking unsafe drugs, unproven drugs. And people are dying from this.
CHANG: Well then, what does Dr. Kalil say we should be doing right now?
PALCA: Well, what he and researchers are saying is - and other researchers are - you need a carefully controlled study. That's where patients get randomized. They don't know whether they're going to get a drug or a placebo, a sugar pill. And that's the best way to say with authority after that - after you've done that study whether something is causing more harm than good. And he's part of a multi-center study of a drug called Remdesivir. It's going to be 440 patients, and half will get the drug and half placebo. And then in a few weeks or maybe a little bit longer, it will - people will know whether or not Remdesivir is something you should try in sick patients.
CHANG: And are studies like that underway for hydroxychloroquine?
PALCA: Yes, there are some studies beginning in New York state. And there's also an interesting study of hydroxychloroquine - I can't say it, either - to prevent the progression of disease. I think that's a really interesting one because again, placebo versus drug for patients who've been exposed to someone with the virus - to see whether it stops them from progressing on to becoming sick themselves.
CHANG: OK. So we've been talking about two drugs, mainly. What about - are there other drugs out there that might work against COVID-19?
PALCA: Well, there are. And the question is, what are they? And Sumit Chanda at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute says normally, it takes five to 10 years to find a new drug.
SUMIT CHANDA: We don't have that kind of time. And so really, the fastest way to a therapeutic is taking old drugs and seeing if they can have antiviral activity.
PALCA: So here's what he does. He takes just about every drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and he throws it into what's called an assay. And that means he's going to test it to see if it can prevent cells from becoming infected with the virus. Now, if it does, you might be more comfortable with trying these drugs because you already know whether they're - what their effect is. You know what their safety profile is, how safe they are to take. And you don't have to worry so much about getting FDA approval because they've already gotten FDA approval - not for that particular application but, you know, for something. And so it may be safer to use those than some other drug.
CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you so much, Joe.
PALCA: You're welcome, Ailsa. Nice to talk to you.
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