Famotidine, the generic name of the popular over-the-counter heartburn treatment Pepcid AC, is being investigated in a study to see if it might be a potential treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, ABC News reports.
A team of researchers affiliated with the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at Northwell Health, a network of hospitals in New York, has quietly been studying the widely-available drug as a treatment for the fatal virus for weeks. Dr. Kevin Tracey, CEO and president of the institute, says that the initial phases of the study were conducted in secret in order to avoid media attention as well as to forestall a run on the product from consumers who are willing to try anything.
In the study, patients were given the drug in combination with hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, appeared to show some promise as a treatment for the virus. However, hydroxychloroquine and its cousin, chloroquine, have both since been rejected as COVID-19 treatments, as some test subjects have been dying from them.
The famotidine was administered to the patients via IV injection, at a dose 9 times that of the regular dose a patient would normally take to treat heartburn.
Tracey says that the idea to test famotidine on COVID-19 patients came from China, where a colleague had heard of a similar study.
The basis for trying famotidine is that the presence of the drug in the body is believed to somehow "trick" the virus. While the virus is "occupied" with the heartburn medicine, it's unable to reproduce itself and spread throughout the patient's body.
Dr. Stuart Ray, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins, said that the degree of secrecy under which the initial phases of the drug trial were conducted was surprising. He also rejected the earlier Chinese data since it wasn't subjected to the regular review process.
Still, Ray says that famotidine, even at these large doses, is probably safe, and if the drug works, then it works.
"I think this sort of off-label repurposing is sensible with drugs for which we have a long safety record. And we really need a win," he said.
However, Dr. Carlos Del Rio, chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, was more put off by the study's secrecy than Ray appeared to have been.
"Science has to be open, not secretive. We want transparency in clinical trials," he said.