July 29, 2020 / 5:29 AM / 8 days ago

Roche bid to retool arthritis drug for COVID-19 fails

(This July 29 story corrects number of people in trial to 452, paragraph 2)

FILE PHOTO: The peak of Mount Pilatus is seen in the background as workers clean the windows of a building of Roche in Rotkreuz May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

By John Revill

ZURICH (Reuters) - Roche’s (ROG.S) attempt to retool its rheumatoid arthritis drug Actemra/RoActemra to treat patients hospitalised with severe COVID-19-related pneumonia has failed in a late-stage trial, the Swiss company said on Wednesday.

Roche launched the 452-patient trial in March as it joined other pharmaceutical companies seeking to re-purpose existing medicines to fight the pandemic.

The “COVACTA trial did not meet its primary end-point of improved clinical status in patients with COVID-19 associated pneumonia, or the key secondary end-point of reduced patient mortality,” Roche said.

The news follows an Italian study that showed the drug failed to help patients with early-stage COVID-19 pneumonia.

Roche shares were little changed.

“For COVID-19 patients in need of an effective treatment, today’s news is disappointing. From an investment perspective, we never assumed a pandemic-driven long-term increase of Actemra revenues,” Bank Vontobel analysts said.

Pharmaceutical companies have been racing to develop treatments against the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly 660,000 lives and crippled economies.

Around 150 companies are working on vaccines, although their first use cannot be expected until early 2021, the World Health Organization said last week.

Companies, meanwhile, have been trying to find ways to use existing drugs to treat COVID-19 patients.

India’s Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd (GLEN.NS), for example, has been trialling its anti-flu drug favipiravir on patients with mild to moderate infections.

Despite the setback, a trial of the drug - also known as tocilizumab - will continue in Britain.

“We are investigating the use of tocilizumab for sicker patients, whereas the Roche trial looked at patients with milder disease,” a spokeswoman for the RECOVERY trial team told Reuters.

Roche is also testing if Actemra mixed with Gilead Sciences Inc’s (GILD.O) anti-viral treatment remdesivir works better against severe COVID-19 pneumonia than remdesivir or Actemra alone.

So far, remdesivir has been shown to help speed up recovery for COVID-19 patients, while the older generic steroid dexamethasone in a British-led trial reduced death rates by around a third among those with the most severe infections.

Roche said the Gilead collaboration was ongoing and it would continue to examine how Actemra could be used to treat COVID-19-related pneumonia. But it would not be applying for regulatory approval for use of the drug on its own against the condition.

The European Commission had struck a deal with Roche to secure supplies of RoActemra, but it was too early to comment on the commercial impact on the negative results of the COVACTA trial, a Roche spokesman said.

The Commission declined to comment.

In the COVACTA trial, there was no difference in mortality rates after four weeks between patients who took Actemra/RoActemra and those who did not.

“People around the world are waiting for further effective treatment options for COVID-19 and we are disappointed that COVACTA did not demonstrate a benefit for patients in either clinical status or mortality at week four,” Levi Garraway, Roche’s chief medical officer, said.

Reporting by John Revill, additional reporting by John Miller, Kate Kelland and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely

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