Hong Kong researchers have found that patients with a more mild disease caused by the new coronavirus will recover faster if they are treated with an antiviral cocktail of three drugs shortly after symptoms appear.
The authors of the study published on Friday in the Lancet described the results as "early but important".
They called for a more thorough examination of critically ill patients to determine whether the drug combination could also be a viable treatment for them.
"Our study shows that early treatment of light to moderate COVID-19 with a triple combination of antiviral drugs can quickly suppress the amount of virus in a patient's body," said Kwok-Yung Yuen, a professor at the University of Hong Kong.
He said the treatment, which appeared to be safe in patients, "alleviates symptoms and reduces the risk to healthcare workers by reducing the duration and amount of virus shedding (if the virus is detectable and possibly transmissible)".
Scientists are trying to find effective drugs against the new corona virus. However, there is currently no treatment, cure or vaccination.
The study tracked the virus in 127 adults who were admitted to six hospitals in Hong Kong after a positive test.
Of the participants, 86 received a two-week course with three drugs: interferon beta-1b, a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis; HIV drugs lopinavir ritonavir; and ribavirin to treat hepatitis.
A randomly assigned control group of 41 people just received the lopinavir-ritonavir combination.
Treatment started on average five days after the onset of symptoms and all patients were otherwise given standard care, including oxygen therapy.
The researchers then measured how long it took for a swab test to be negative for the virus.
They found that those taking all three drugs were able to clear the coronavirus in an average of seven days (between five and eleven days) – "significantly" shorter than the 12-day average of the control group.
Those who received the three-drug regimen also saw complete symptom relief in an average of four days, compared to eight in the control group.
The study was conducted between February 10 and March 20 in Hong Kong, where anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 will be hospitalized.
The authors admitted several limitations with the study, including that it was "open label" – people knew what medication they were taking and there was no placebo.
Patients who were ingested more than seven days after the onset of symptoms did not receive interferon because it was feared that it could cause inflammation.
Of these, 34 received the combination of lopinavir-ritonavir and ribavirin, while 17 were in the control group.
Both groups took the same amount of time to get rid of the virus, which the authors believed meant that interferon was the key to a shorter illness for those treated from the first week of symptoms.
"A future clinical trial of double antiviral therapy with interferon beta-1b as the backbone is warranted," the study said.
In response to the study, Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that "this justifies the consideration of adding interferon beta to the list of truly evidence-based, promising treatments to be tested in further randomized trials.
"From many years of experience, it is clear that HIV can best be treated with combinations of different medications, and COVID-19 could do the same," he added.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)