Roche Arthritis Drug Cut Covid Patients’ Death Risk in Study


Roche Holding AG’s arthritis drug Actemra reduced the risk of death for hospitalized Covid-19 patients in a large U.K. study, helping clarify the drug’s role after several sets of conflicting trial results.

Patients who took the drug were 14% less likely to die within 28 days than those who received standard therapies in the U.K.’s Recovery trial that’s reviewed multiple Covid treatments. The more than 4,000 volunteers in the study were severely ill, with evidence of inflammation, and required oxygen. The results indicate that for every 25 such patients treated with Actemra, also known as tocilizumab, one life would be saved, the researchers said.

“That’s good for the patients and for the health system,” Martin Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford who helped lead the study, said in a briefing. “This will change practice not only here in the U.K. but globally.”

Roche shares rose 0.6% in Zurich.

Role of Drug

The study will help doctors understand the role of Actemra after a handful of smaller recent trials returned differing results. Urgently seeking new treatments amid a severe Covid wave, the U.K. started using the drug last month after positive results from a smaller study and said Thursday it will widen use to thousands more patients.

“The magnitude of benefit is not startling but is clinically important,” Stephen Evans, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine pharmacoepidemiologist, said in an e-mailed statement. The results are “very encouraging,” Evans said, noting that about four-fifths of the patients in the trial were also taking steroids, a common Covid treatment, indicating that the effect of the arthritis drug was additive.

There’s a significant price difference between Actemra and the steroid dexamethasone, which was even more effective in results last year from the same study. The steroid cut the risk of death by 35% in patients on ventilators and by 20% among those receiving oxygen.

Treatment with the steroids, which can be administered in variety of forms, including oral pills, costs about 5 pounds ($6.91) in the U.K. A course of intravenous Actemra for a Covid patient would cost about 500 pounds, the researchers said. Roche supplied the medicine used in the Recovery trial.

‘Significant Advance’

Still, about half the people admitted to hospitals with Covid would benefit from the arthritis drug, said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases and global health at Oxford, who also helped lead the study.

In the Recovery trial, Actemra boosted patients’ likelihood of leaving the hospital alive within 28 days from 47% to 54%. Among people who weren’t on a ventilator at the start of treatment, the arthritis drug cut the risk of needing such breathing assistance or dying by about 15%. In earlier studies, the drug hadn’t appeared to help reduce deaths, though those trials tested it in people who were less sick.

Actemra was added to the Recovery trial in April 2020. Recruitment to that portion of the study stopped on Jan. 24 after sufficient patients had been enrolled to establish whether or not the drug was beneficial.

After the steroid dexamethasone, “this is the most significant advance in the treatment of Covid that has an impact in reducing deaths,” Athimalaipet Ramanan, a professor of pediatric rheumatology at the University of Bristol, said in a statement.

Roche declined to comment on whether it will seek regulatory approval to market Actemra for Covid patients. The company said it expects results in coming weeks from a large study using the arthritis medicine together with Gilead Sciences Inc.’s antiviral remdesivir.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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