Heartburn drug famotidine in New York hospital trials

New York has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States and hospitals are studying common heartburn drugs to treat it.

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Heartburn drug famotidine in New York hospital trials

The United States is getting ready to end the quarantine period and reopen the economy as the country approaches one million confirmed cases. New York has been the state most affected by the virus and hospitals have started testing famotidine as a possible treatment for Covid-19. This is a common heartburn drug and on 7 April the first coronavirus patients at Northwell Health hospital began to receive famotidine.

Famotidine being tested

The study was kept a secret so that supplies didn’t run out and by Saturday, 187 Covid-19 patients in critical status, including many on ventilators, have been enrolled in the trial, which aimed for a total of 1,174 people. Reports from China and molecular modeling results suggest the drug, which seems to bind to a key enzyme in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, could make a difference.

Scientists work in a lab testing Covid-19 samples at New York City's health department.

"There are many examples in the history of medicine where a drug that was designed for one purpose turns out to have an effect in another disease," said Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health.

"We don't know if it has any benefit. We really don't. I swear we don't," he said. "People are hoping for anything. But we need to do this clinical trial and people should not go to the drugstore and take a bunch of heartburn medicine."

A globe-trotting infectious disease doctor named Michael Callahan was the first to call attention to the drug in the United States. Callahan, who is based at Massachusetts General Hospital and has extensive connections in the biodefense world, has spent time in disease hot zones around the globe, including the 2003 outbreak of another coronavirus disease, SARS, in Hong Kong.

A scientist holds a sample during Covid-19 testing at New York City's health department, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease.

Doctors noticed that many survivors had been suffering from chronic heartburn and were on famotidine rather than more-expensive omeprazole, the medicine of choice both in the United States and among wealthier Chinese. Hospitalized Covid-19 patients on famotidine appeared to be dying at a rate of about 14% compared with 27% for those not on the drug, although the analysis was crude and the result was not statistically significant.