How is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) treated?

Updated: Jun 25, 2021
  • Author: David J Cennimo, MD, FAAP, FACP, FIDSA, AAHIVS; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Utilization of programs established by the FDA to allow clinicians to gain access to investigational therapies during the pandemic has been essential. The expanded access (EA) and emergency use authorization (EUA) programs allowed for rapid deployment of potential therapies for investigation and investigational therapies with emerging evidence. A review by Rizk et al describes the role for each of these measures and their importance to providing medical countermeasures in the event of infectious disease and other threats. [21]

As of October 22, 2020, remdesivir, an antiviral agent, is the only drug fully approved for treatment of COVID-19. It is indicated for treatment of COVID-19 disease in hospitalized adults and children aged 12 years and older who weigh at least 40 kg. [22] An emergency use authorization (EUA) remains in place for treat pediatric patients weighing 3.5 kg to less than 40 kg or children younger than 12 years who weigh at least 3.5 kg. [128]

An EUA for convalescent plasma was announced on August 23, 2020. [287] Numerous other antiviral agents, immunotherapies, and vaccines continue to be investigated and developed as potential therapies. 

The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for bamlanivimab monotherapy on November 9, 2020. This EUA for monotherapy was rescinded in April 2021 owing to emergence of resistance to emerging variants. Bamlanivimab may be used in combination with etesevimab, as this regimen continues to have activity toward circulating variants in the United States as of April 2021. [130]  The FDA also granted an EUA for IV coadministration of the monoclonal antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab in November 2020 and for SC administration in June 2021. An EUA was granted for sotrovimab in May 2021. 

An EUA was issued for baricitinib on November 19, 2020 for use, in combination with remdesivir, for treatment of suspected or laboratory confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in hospitalized patients aged 2 years and older who require supplemental oxygen, invasive mechanical ventilation, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). [129]   

The FDA has granted EUAs for 3 SARS-CoV-2 vaccines since December 2020. Two are mRNA vaccines – BNT-162b2 (Pfizer) and mRNA-1273 (Moderna), whereas the third is a viral vector vaccine – Ad26.COV2.S (Johnson & Johnson).  

All infected patients should receive supportive care to help alleviate symptoms. Vital organ function should be supported in severe cases. [24]

Numerous collaborative efforts to discover and evaluate effectiveness of antivirals, immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines have rapidly emerged. Guidelines and reviews of pharmacotherapy for COVID-19 have been published. [25, 26, 27, 28]

Searching for effective therapies for COVID-19 infection is a complex process. Gordon et al identified 332 high-confidence SARS-CoV-2 human protein-protein interactions. Among these, they identified 66 human proteins or host factors targeted by 69 existing FDA-approved drugs, drugs in clinical trials, and/or preclinical compounds. As of March 22, 2020, these researchers are in the process of evaluating the potential efficacy of these drugs in live SARS-CoV-2 infection assays. [131]

The NIH Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutics Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) trials public-private partnership to develop a coordinated research strategy has several ongoing protocols that are adaptive to the progression of standard care. [132]  

Another adaptive platform trial is the I-SPY COVID-19 Trial for treating critically ill patients. The clinical trial is designed to allow numerous investigational agents to be evaluated in the span of 4-6 months, compared with standard of care (supportive care for ARDS, remdesivir backbone therapy). Depending on the time course of COVID-19 infections across the US. As the trial proceeds and a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the COVID-19 illness emerges, expanded biomarker and data collection can be added as needed to further elucidate how agents are or are not working. [133]  

How these potential COVID-19 treatments will translate to human use and efficacy is not easily or quickly understood. The question of whether some existing drugs that have shown in vitro antiviral activity might achieve adequate plasma pharmacokinetics with current approved doses was examined by Arshad et al. The researchers identified in vitro anti–SARS-CoV-2 activity data from all available publications up to April 13, 2020, and recalculated an EC90 value for each drug. EC90 values were then expressed as a ratio to the achievable maximum plasma concentrations (Cmax) reported for each drug after administration of the approved dose to humans (Cmax/EC90 ratio). The researchers also calculated the unbound drug to tissue partition coefficient to predict lung concentrations that would exceed their reported EC50 levels. [134]

The WHO developed a blueprint of potential therapeutic candidates in January 2020. Who embarked on an ambitious global "megatrial" called SOLIDARITY in which confirmed cases of COVD-19 are randomized to standard care or one of four active treatment arms (remdesivir, chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir/ritonavir, or lopinavir/ritonavir plus interferon beta-1a). In early July 2020, the treatment arms in hospitalized patients that included hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or lopinavir/ritonavir were discontinued owing to the drugs showing little or no reduction in mortality compared with standard of care.187 Interim results released mid-October 2020 found the 4 aforementioned repurposed antiviral agents appeared to have little or no effect on hospitalized patients with COVID-19, as indicated by overall mortality, initiation of ventilation, and duration of hospital stay. The 28-day mortality was 12% (39% if already ventilated at randomization, 10% otherwise). [136]

The urgent need for treatments during a pandemic can confound the interpretation of resulting outcomes of a therapy if data are not carefully collected and controlled. Andre Kalil, MD, MPH, writes of the detriment of drugs used as a single-group intervention without a concurrent control group that ultimately lead to no definitive conclusion of efficacy or safety. [137]

Rome and Avorn write about unintended consequences of allowing widening access to experimental therapies. First, efficacy is unknown and may be negligible, but, without appropriate studies, physicians will not have evidence on which to base judgement. Existing drugs with well-documented adverse effects (eg, hydroxychloroquine) subject patients to these risks without proof of clinical benefit. Expanded access of unproven drugs may delay implementation of randomized controlled trials. In addition, demand for unproven therapies can cause shortages of medications that are approved and indicated for other diseases, thereby leaving patients who rely on these drugs for chronic conditions without effective therapies. [138]

Drug shortages during the pandemic go beyond off-label prescribing of potential treatments for COVID-19. Drugs that are necessary for ventilated and critically ill patients and widespread use of inhalers used for COPD or asthma are in demand. [139, 140]

It is difficult to carefully evaluate the onslaught of information that has emerged regarding potential COVID-19 therapies within a few months’ time in early 2020. A brief but detailed approach regarding how to evaluate resulting evidence of a study has been presented by F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE. By using the example of a case series of patients given hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin, he provides clinicians with a quick review of critical analyses. [141]

For more information on investigational drugs and biologics being evaluated for COVID-19, see Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigational Drugs and Other Therapies.

Related articles

See the article Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Emergency Medicine.

The Medscape article Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) includes discussions of fluid management, noninvasive ventilation and high-flow nasal cannula, mechanical ventilation, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

Some have raised concerns over whether patients with respiratory distress have presentations more like those of high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) than ARDS.

See also the articles Viral Pneumonia, Respiratory Failure, Septic Shock, and Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome in Sepsis.

Medscape resources describing relevant procedures are as follows:

Ventilator application techniques

Ventilator management and monitoring

Respiratory conditions assessment and management


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