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Lilly to study use of arthritis drug to treat COVID-19

Patrik Jonsson is president of Lilly Bio-Medicines. (photo provided by Lilly)

INDIANAPOLIS (Inside INdiana Business) — Eli Lilly and Co. (NYSE: LLY) is exploring whether one of its FDA-approved treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) could be used to treat patients with COVID-19.

The company has announced it will begin clinical trials this month on the drug baricitinib on patients in the U.S. who are hospitalized and diagnosed with the disease.

“Those patients have developed what is called an acute respiratory distress syndrome,” said Patrik Jonsson, president of Lilly Bio-Medicines.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of baricitinib, which is marketed as Olumiant, in June 2018 for the treatment of adult patients with moderately to severely active rheumatoid arthritis.

Jonsson said Lilly will collaborate with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to examine if the anti-inflammatory benefits of baricitinib seen in RA patients could have similar efficacy in advanced cases of COVID-19 patients.

“That is the primary focus to really understand if we could provide relief for those patients who participate in it. If that could be confirmed, I think we’ll probably consider different study setups as well.”

Lilly said for the NIAID study, Baricitinib will be tested on the spectrum of hospitalized patients, from mild to moderate to severe cases, including those patients being ventilated.

Jonsson said preclinical data seems to support the hypothesis that the RA treatment could work. To validate the success, the NIAID-Lilly study will utilize a placebo-controlled study.

“We have just made the commitment to do whatever we can through our scientific forces, overcome and combat the coronavirus. But it’s amazing all of the initiatives that have been announced just over the last couple of weeks. So now, making this partnership with the NIAID, it’s really exciting for us,” Jonsson said.

For Jonsson, this endeavor is not only about a scientific process. There is also a very personal connection. Prior to his current role at the company headquarters in Indianapolis, Jonsson oversaw Lilly’s central and southern European operations, including Italy and Spain

Jonsson lived in Italy for six years. In a country of 60 million people, nearly 20,000 have died from COVID-19. Spain has registered approximately 18,000 deaths, among its population of 46 million.

“I’m in almost daily contact with my friends both in Italy and in Spain,” said Jonsson. “Whoever I’m talking to back there, they have someone that they are close to that is either severely ill or even having passed away as a result of this virus.”

Just last week, Jonsson spoke with former colleagues in Spain about the pandemic’s impact. “He said, ‘Patrik, please take this serious(ly), take it serious(ly) because this is really, really a devastating situation.”

He said the discovery of the possible use of the drug on COVID-19 patients stemmed from research conducted in February in London.

“They used an artificial intelligence model to try to check in the literature…if there was a medicine already in a marketplace approved for something different, not for COVID-19,” explained Jonsson. But the U.K. researchers said their A.I. outcomes indicated baricitinib might have not only an antiviral impact but also an anti-inflammatory effect on COVID-19 patients.

“This NIAID study presents an important opportunity to test whether baricitinib can help these patients,” said Dr. Vincent Marconi, professor of medicine and global health at Emory University School of Medicine. “There is an urgent need for new strategies to help hospitalized COVID-19 patients, many of whom will progress to respiratory failure.”

Lilly said testing will begin in the U.S. and it expects results within the next two months. Testing could also be expanded to locations in Europe and Asia.

The company said the medication is currently approved for use in over 65 countries, including the U.S.

Jonsson told Inside INdiana Business companies like Lilly have an obligation to test whatever is possible to find solutions.