Colchicine, a cheap drug normally used to treat gout, helps to reduce hospital stays and the need for oxygen therapy in COVID-19 patients, a study has concluded.
The results of the small clinical trial, published in the online journal RMD Open, prompted the Brazilian researchers to suggest that it may be worth adding the medication to standard treatment for hospital patients with moderate to severe cases of coronavirus.
Colchicine has been successfully used to treat and prevent systemic inflammatory conditions, including gout.
As systemic inflammation is a key feature of moderate to severe COVID infection, the researchers wanted to find out if adding it to standard treatment may cut the need for supplemental oxygen and length of hospital stay.
They also sought to establish whether it could mean fewer patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 infection requiring intensive care - and a lower risk of death.
In the study, moderate disease was defined as fever, breathing difficulties and pneumonia, while severe disease was defined as all those symptoms plus a rapid breathing rate of 30 or more times a minute and low levels of oxygen in the body.
A total of 75 patients admitted to hospital with moderate to severe coronavirus were randomly assigned either standard treatment plus colchicine for 10 days, or standard treatment plus a dummy, or placebo, drug.
In results based on 72 patients - 36 in each group - the average length of time patients needed oxygen therapy was four days for those treated with additional colchicine compared with 6.5 days for those in the standard treatment plus placebo group.
And the average length of hospital stay was seven days for the colchicine group compared with nine for the standard treatment group.
By day seven, fewer than one in 10 (9%) of those treated with colchicine needed additional oxygen compared with more than four out of 10 (42%) in the standard treatment group.
Two patients died, both from the placebo group.
The researchers - who said colchicine was safe and well tolerated, with few side effects - cautioned that only a small number of patients were included in the trial.
And, they added, they were not able to find out if colchicine might avoid the need for intensive care or lessen the risk of death.
The said colchicine was "very unlikely" to have some direct antiviral properties, but may lessen the body's inflammatory response and help ward off damage to the cells lining vessel walls.
"Whatever the mechanism of action... colchicine seems to be beneficial for the treatment of hospitalised patients with COVID-19," they concluded.
The authors added the drug was not associated with serious side effects - such as heart or liver damage or immune system suppression - that have been linked to some of the other drugs used to treat the disease.