Experts say that far more testing is needed to determine if anti-viral drugs used to battle HIV can be used to treat the growing coronavirus menace, offering notes of caution to hopes raised by the recovery of a New Jersey man who is crediting his recovery to the powerful drugs.
Doctors in China, Thailand and Japan say they’ve used HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir — sometimes in combination with other medicines — in a handful of coronavirus cases, where patients have managed to recover.
Experts with the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene warned that “this is not an approved treatment for coronavirus.”
“We have heard of some individuals with coronavirus being treated with HIV medications,” the agency said in a statement. “There is no vaccine or treatment approved to treat COVID-19.”
Still, James Cai, 32, — who was the Garden State’s first coronavirus case — told The Post he would be “dead and gone” if his doctors at Hackensack Medical Center not reached out to experts in China about how best to defeat the deadly bug.
“Most medical providers here don’t know about it,” Cai said. “Medical providers need to communicate with Chinese medical teams.”
The Chinese experts recommended he be treated with the antimalarial medicine chloroquine and the HIV drug Kaletra — which is a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir.
“Chinese experts suggest to treat with medicine to slow the virus first. Don’t wait,” Cai said. “Definitely I would not be here today [without them].”
The meds belong to a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors, which block a key enzyme that helps viruses replicate. Previous studies had found that the mixture was helpful in preventing SARS, also a coronavirus, from maturing and replicating.
Spain’s first coronavirus patient, Miguel Ángel Benítez, 62, is believed to have made a full recovery after being treated with Kaletra, local newspapers reported last week.
Doctors in Thailand and Japan have also reported using lopinavir and ritonavir to fight COVID-19 and China last month began testing Kaletra as treatment.
Thai doctors gave those drugs, in combination with a hefty dose of flu drug oseltamivir to a Chinese coronavirus patient — who then tested negative within two days, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health.
In Japan, a patient from Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the epidemic — was treated with just the two HIV drugs. Her fever subsided within five days, though she still had some trouble breathing.
“These results are encouraging [but] public health experts caution that more testing is needed before concluding that the HIV drugs can effectively treat the coronavirus,” amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research said in a statement.
A clinical trial is underway in China to test the safety and efficacy of lopinavir and ritonavir in treating coronavirus. In the US, some pharmaceutical companies said they have begun testing their HIV drugs as treatment.
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