Lilly tests rheumatoid arthritis drug as possible COVID-19 treatment

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Eli Lilly and Co. is testing a possible new treatment for COVID-19. The third phase of the global clinical trial started Friday, and trial’s first patient being treated in Indianapolis.

The drug is called baracitinib and is marketed as Olumiant. It is already FDA-approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The hope is that the existing drug has the ability to save lives, keep people off a ventilator and get patients suffering from COVID-19 out of the hospital faster.

Lilly Bio-Medicines President Patrik Jonsson said baracitinib could be a first step, not a final step, but a first step to save lives from COVID-19.

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, scientists at Lilly think baracitinib could treat people hospitalized with the disease.

“Baricitinib is already approved in the U.S. and most countries across the globe for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. And it is believed that the anti-inflammatory effect that we see when we are treating rheumatoid arthritis is also partly what could help patients with COVID-19,” said Jonsson.

Doctors from Community Health Network expect that patients who have a hyper-immune response to COVID-19 could benefit the most from this medicine. To find out, 400 adults around the world who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and are not on a ventilator are now being enrolled in this trial.

About 10-20 of those people will be from Indiana. People from across the U.S., Brazil, Europe and Latin America will be involved in the trial.They will either be given the Lilly drug or a placebo, to see if the medicine helps treat COVID-19.

Doctors are studying whether baracitinib can reduce inflammation and if it has an anti-viral component to fight off COVID-19 at the same time.

“So this drug is an anti-inflammatory and also possibly an antiviral. It can help block the pathway in which the virus enters the respiratory cells. So maybe if this all holds out, you have less concern giving an immune suppressive drug to a patient who has an active infection,” said Dr. Patrick Milligan with Community Health Network.

This is Lilly’s second trial involving baracitinib and COVID-19. The other trial pairs baracitinib with an additional antiviral medicine. The hope with both clinical trials is the same.

“Baracitinib wouldn’t be the final response. We need to have antibodies that can attack the virus. We need a vaccine that can prevent the virus. But until we have those, we need something that can reduce the mortality rate,” said Jonsson.

Lilly and the Community Health Network said they hope to have preliminary results from this clinical trial in just a few months.