“So there had to be something they were doing which was preventing them from progressing to the more serious stage of the disease.”
The trial has been set up to look at whether that something might be the steroid inhalers used by many people with chronic lung issues.
Distinct from the familiar blue Ventolin inhalers, many people with long-term serious asthma and other lung issues use a brown inhaler that delivers a dose of corticosteroid budesonide, sold commercially as Pulmicort, among other names.
Steroids suppress the immune system, which would seem like the last thing anyone who had a deadly virus would want, but Professor Nicolau said it might be a good thing when it came to COVID-19.
“In people with bad cases of COVID, what seems to be happening is a runaway inflammatory reaction in the lungs,” he said.
“So we hope that the steroid will act as a handbrake to stop people rolling all the way down the hill into a serious case of the virus.”
The beauty of the trial, Professor Nicolau said, was that Pulmicort inhalers were very cheap and so could be sourced easily, and if found to be successful, they could be given as a precaution to everyone who contracts COVID-19.
“This isn’t some new vaccine or miracle drug. Asthma drugs cost virtually nothing, and there are billions of doses already produced,” he said, “to the point where the drug company involved, AstraZeneca, is giving us the drugs for free. We asked for 5000 and they just gave them to us.”
The trial will involve at least 500 people recruited from Churchill Hospital in Headington, England, as Australia has too few cases to assemble the trial group quickly, something that has been a problem for other coronavirus-related trials being conducted in Australia.
The trial began about two weeks ago and will run for two months, with the possibility of being extended if required.
University of Oxford researchers recently published the results of a separate trial that showed promising results using a steroid given to advanced COVID-19 patients as a tablet.
“It’s quite possible the medical community has underestimated how powerful turning down the immune response can be in the right circumstances,” Professor Nicolau said.
“You can think of it as like sending the army home in the middle of a war; it goes against every instinct you have, but sometimes the army is doing more harm than good.”
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.