Three months after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Wisconsin, potential treatments are underway.
The most recent is an antiviral drug made by the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, which is donating 1.5 million vials of the drug remdesivir for emergency use in critically ill patients.
Ten patients infected with COVID-19 will be treated with the drug at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee as part of a nationwide study of its effectiveness.
"I’m very excited we will have access to this medication for our most severely affected patients," said the principal investigator of the study, Mary Beth Graham, medical director of infection prevention and control at Froedtert Hospital.
"In some other ways, I’m hoping we don’t have to use it because I don’t want anybody to be in that situation where they are that ill from COVID that we would use it," Graham added.
Remdesivir is currently the only antiviral drug available for COVID-19 patients, Graham said. But it’s not new. It was also tried as a treatment for hepatitis C and Ebola but was unsuccessful.
UW Hospital in Madison is also hoping to get the drug, but so far has not.
Distribution is controlled by the federal government under emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Both research hospitals are using another method to help treat COVID-19 patients: convalescent plasma, donated by those who have recovered from the new coronavirus.
UW Health has injected 15 patients with the special plasma so far. The principal investigator for that study is William Hartman, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
Several of the 15 patients have been taken off ventilators, although a UW spokesperson cautions they can't attribute the improved outcomes to convalescent plasma, and added that outcomes have been better when patients are treated before needing to be admitted to the intensive care unit.
Froedtert had treated 10 patients with convalescent plasma as of Monday afternoon and Graham said they are "cautiously optimistic."
By using plasma from recovered coronavirus patients, investigators hope to augment a sick person’s immune system. Donors in Dane County have included a 75-year-old man who beat COVID-19 after suffering only mild symptoms.
Graham said it’s "amazing" what scientists now know compared to just eight weeks ago. But she recognizes people are anxious for science to work as fast as possible in finding potential treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus.
"People are like, 'Why is it taking so long?' If you look back at other diseases, this has been phenomenally rapid, the amount of information we have," she said.