Aussie Scientists Trial Asthma Drugs as a Coronavirus Treatment

asthma ventolin
Close up of an asthma inhaler.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology are collaborating with Oxford University to trial asthma drugs to fight COVID-19.

The trial, known as STOIC (STerOids In COVID-19), is being led by Associate Professor Dan Nicolau —  a mathematician, physician and Australian Research Council Future Fellow. The trial will take place in the United Kingdom and 500 people are expected to take part. Some will be given a placebo, while others will be given corticosteroid budesonide — an inhaled medication used to prevent and control asthma symptoms.

Why asthma drugs?

While people with asthma and chronic lung disease COPD were expected to be some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19, professor Nicolau has found them to be under-represented when it comes to seriously ill patients.

“This seemed paradoxical because COVID-19 affects the lungs – and these patients have lung problems – so they should be more at risk of severe disease from the virus,” Nicolau said in a press release.

Nicolau thought that perhaps there is a connection between these surprisingly low numbers and the use of asthma medication.

“One explanation for the low numbers was that something these people were doing regularly was protecting them and that, logically, was that they routinely used inhalers for their chronic lung problems,” Nicolau said.

“Ideally it may be that the corticosteroid therapy would be given to anyone with a new, dry cough, and while they are awaiting their COVID test results.”

According to Nicolau, mathematic modelling by the research team suggests “the earlier we apply the inhaled steroid treatment the more people we’ll be able to keep from getting sick.”

If the team is correct, this could be an inexpensive way to help fight COVID-19 due to its relatively low cost in some countries, such as Australia.

No panic buying, please

However, it’s worth remembering that this is still just a trial of one specific drug. People should refrain from preemptively stockpiling any kind asthma medication, particularly when they don’t suffer from lung issues.

In March restrictions were placed on the purchase of ventolin due to panic buying. At the time it appeared some non-asthmatics were buying it as a prevention against COVID-19.

This was able to happen because ventolin is a ‘Schedule 3’ medicine. This means that it is available from a pharmacist without a prescription. However, because purchase is at the pharmacist’s discretion, Nicolau doesn’t think panic buying will be an issue.

“There wouldn’t be the kind of panic buying you see with consumer goods, because there are checks in place,” Nicolau said in an email to Gizmodo Australia.

He also believes that if the drug is success, increased demand from patients should be manageable.

“There is a lot of stock around and, as above, checks and balances on dispensation of the inhalers would come into play to stop any [panic buying].”

Associate professor Nicolau also stated that like with any medication, you should contact your GP first and not take anything you don’t need. He also revealed that it will be a couple of months before we will potentially see results from the trial.

“This STOIC trial is a double blind clinical trial and it’s important that we see evidence first, of course, before reaching any conclusions. I think, based on the discussions I had yesterday, that it’d be at least September before we could say with any confidence,” Nicolau said over email.

We’ll check back then to see if taking a hit of a nerd bong helps people suffering with COVID-19.