Covid-19 patients in New York are being given heartburn medicine to experiment if it can be an effective drug to treat Covid-19.
Preliminary results of the clinical trial of famotidine, the active ingredient in Pepcid, could come out in the next few weeks, said Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, which runs 23 hospitals in the New York City area, reports CNN.
They are expecting to collect 1200 samples for this study.
"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," Tracey said.
He said if famotidine works then it would be easy to use it on a widespread scale.
But he emphasized that it might not work.
"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."
He cautiously forbade people to take any insensitive step that could harm them more.
"You should not go to the drugstore and take a bunch of heartburn medicine," he said.
Tracey and his colleagues got the idea to study famotidine from China where they observed that some patients performed far better than patients not taking the drug.
He said studies on the Chinese patients have not yet been published, but that Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at
Massachusetts General Hospital who worked with coronavirus patients in China observed that some people with lower incomes were surviving longer than their wealthier counterparts who also had heartburn.
Though the Chinese study is still not published, they are ready to take this risk after witnessing significant improvement after having this drug.
"The poor peasants really seemed to do well on famotidine," Tracey said. "There are a lot of anecdotes passing around that give us some hope."
The doctors are very concerned with initiating the trail as they don't wish to create a situation like hydroxychloroquine.
Just a few days ago, hydroxychloroquine became a standard and essential drug for treating coronavirus, ignoring all the side effects at first.
"You have to be fair to people -- they're reading in the paper and hearing on the news that hydroxychloroquine works and they look at their dying wife or grandma or child and they want to try it and how could we say no? What kind of person would say no?" Tracey said.
That's why they have decided to drop the malaria drug in their trial over patients as the US Food and Drug Administration warned against its use for coronavirus because of possible side effects.
Tracey said, "The independent board monitoring the trial will make the decision about whether to continue including hydroxychloroquine in the study."
He added that Northwell kept the study quiet until now because of the experience with doctors rushing to put patients on hydroxychloroquine. He doesn't want that same rush for intravenous famotidine, it's unclear if it works, and if there's a rush on the drug, his research team might not have enough for their study subjects.
He's also concerned that people who don't have heartburn will rush to stores to buy famotidine pills, mistakenly convinced it will help against coronavirus.
He said these are unusual concerns at an unusual time.
"That's the reality of trying to do the right thing in a pandemic. It's very, very hard," he said.