VUMC ICU doctor leads study on arthritis drug that might help reduce mortality of hospitalized COVID-19 patients


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A doctor in the Intensive Care Unity at Vanderbilt University Medical Center was one of the principal investigators of a study that revealed how a rheumatoid arthritis drug might help reduce the mortality of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

“Early on in the pandemic, we knew there were probably some drugs out there that could help save lives,” said Dr. Wesley Ely. “We used artificial intelligence to explore the world’s data and determine that this one drug, baricitinib, which is FDA approved for rheumatoid arthritis, would be the leading candidate.”

The study, which was conducted along with Vince Marconi, MD, of Emory University, included over 1,500 patients in 12 countries and more than 100 medical centers. It took about eight months, which Dr. Ely said was really fast for an investigation of this global scale.

According to VUMC, when baricitinib was used in combination with the standard of care including corticosteroids, COVID-19 patients died less often than those receiving only the standard of care.

“We ended up saving about one out of every 20 people given this drug versus placebo, their life would be saved, and the sicker you were, the better that effect was so that it’s about one in every 10 people treated, life saved, If you’re of the sicker variety of COVID patient,” Dr. Ely explained. “This drug will change on a global scale, how we handle COVID. Before this, we were giving dexamethasone and other drugs. Now we will give dexamethasone and baricitinib and we’re making the drug available in India, countries in Africa, Haiti, all of the lower-middle-income countries are what get the drug for free.”

Dr. Ely went on to explain why the drug worked, saying it’s about the drug’s anti-inflammatory properties because the COVID virus causes a lot of inflammation in the body. Their study found baricitinib squashes down that inflammation and allows the body to overcome the virus without injuring itself so much that it leads to death.

“When somebody is critically ill in the ICU, and I’m their doctor, they have symptoms, like profound shortness of breath, they need a ventilator, they’re in shock,” he said. “These things are all compound to end up taking someone’s life. So what this drug does is the train’s already left the station. It doesn’t stop the train completely. But it stops that train from going over the cliff to death.”

He says this study showed they are making major progress in how doctors approach this disease.

“Right now with the ICU being predominantly filled with unvaccinated people who are really sick, we have an armamentarium of drugs where we can try and save these people’s lives with greater success than before,” Dr. Ely said.

The Grant Liddle Professor of Medicine at VUMC shared the stories of some of those patients in his newly published book titled ‘Every Deep-Drawn Breath: A Critical Care Doctor on Healing, Recovery, and Transforming Medicine in the ICU.’

“There’s an immense amount of these stories, and the emotion, the full range of human emotion that I have lived out at the bedside with my patients. And what I’ve learned is that I used to, as a pre-gray-haired ICU doctor, stay removed from my patients,” Dr. Ely said. “I’ve learned now that the more I dive in, hold hands, learn who that person is, their pets’ names, look them in the eyes, it’s a burnout prevention program. Because really, it’s all about love. I’m there for love.”

As hospitalizations continue rising in Tennessee due to COVID-19, with the vast majority of patients unvaccinated, he hopes more people can consider getting the shot.

“It’s very sad for me to see these numbers increase as they have in the past month, and especially all the pregnant patients and women losing their babies,” he said. “If we can just convince people enough that they don’t need to be afraid. We need to listen to people’s fears, take those fears one step at a time. And help them realize that the benefit of this vaccination program, which is steeped in science, greatly outweighs the things that they’re afraid of.”

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