Creating a drug from scratch is a lengthy process. Often taking years, given the rate of infection and deadliness of COVID-19, researchers do not have time to create new treatments. Thus, more often than not, they repurpose existing drugs already used against other diseases.
This is not a new practice. In fact, in most countries, doctors are free to prescribe drugs for new and rare conditions should no other treatment exist either due to their novelty or a lack of profitability by pharmaceutical companies. Whether these drugs were then effective in their repurposed plight was as much up to trial and error as it was chance.
Although commonly used in the past, doctors and researchers nowadays have more sophisticated testing techniques than trial and error and crossing fingers. Rather than simply ‘hoping for the best’, today researchers employ network analysis and artificial intelligences to narrow down the screening process to more effectively identify drug candidates. Although able to accelerate the process, it is still not able to fully replace human testing.
This is why hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway to decipher which drugs may be most effective against COVID-19. However, due to the urgency of the situation, many argue that insufficient data is being collected to truly determine the efficacy of drugs.
A good example of this is the recent clinical trial on Gilead’s remdesivir reporting that the drug is able to reduce recovery times from COVID-19 from 15 days to 11. Although received with optimism, another study from China found no statistically significant link between the treatment and recovery times. Although a smaller trial in which most patients were treated later on in their illness, as no little other clinical evidence exists on the drug, some may be cautious on exactly how effective it is.
However, given that large, randomized, placebo-controlled trials are challenging and expensive to run, it may take some time until the real efficacy of the drugs currently used to treat COVID-19 are revealed. Until then, doctors and researchers alike will continue to make quick decisions about how best to treat their patients using the limited evidence they have on existing drugs.