Australian-led clinical drug trial investigates way to safeguard healthcare workers against COVID-19

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When the call went out for healthcare workers to assist in COVID-19 response at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (SVHM), Dr Sharon Ford didn’t hesitate to put her hand up.

Dr Ford, a nephrologist at SVHM, joined the hospital’s COVID-19 public testing clinic, which saw up to 300 patients a day during peak times.

“In a global pandemic, you do what is needed, especially when healthcare workers are being exposed and are getting sick,” Dr Ford says.

As well as taking on an additional frontline role testing thousands of patients potentially infected with COVID-19, she also signed up as a participant in a clinical trial to test a drug that could help protect frontline healthcare workers from contracting the virus.

“The prospect of contracting COVID-19 is always front of mind. My biggest fear is unknowingly passing the virus on to a patient or loved one,” Dr Ford says.

 “Most of the patients I usually see are immunosuppressed and at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19; they were incredibly scared. I felt this was one thing I could do to help out.”

To protect and serve

The COVID SHIELD Clinical Trial aims to investigate whether the drug hydroxychloroquine might be useful in protecting healthcare workers who are at risk of exposure to SARS Coronavirus 2 in their daily professional roles.

Led by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the randomised, gold-standard clinical trial is a collaborative project with human data science company IQVIA and various healthcare providers across the country, including SVHM, which is also a screening site for the trial and has been heavily involved in the design of the study.

The trial will see half the participants given hydroxychloroquine, while the other half will receive a placebo over the course of four months.  

Associate Professor Mandana Nikpour, one of COVID-SHIELD’s lead principal researchers and a consultant rheumatologist at SVHM, says studies have shown the drug had some effectiveness against COVID-19 in the laboratory but it needed to be clinically tested.

“Hydroxychloroquine is commonly used in the treatment of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and is generally safe and well tolerated in patients,” she explains.

“It is important to rigorously test the drug to see whether it has a place in protecting our frontline healthcare workers.”

A way forward

A/Prof Nikpour says if the drug did prove effective in reducing the risk of contracting the virus, it could help combat COVID-19.

“Our frontline healthcare workers are putting themselves at risk every day, coming to work to care for patients with COVID-19. In that process, they risk contracting the virus themselves and potentially passing it on to their loved ones,” she says.

“If there is even a small chance that this drug could help protect these workers, we owe it to them to test it. We want to make sure we are doing everything in our power to assist our healthcare workers.”

Although there has been lots of work done on vaccine development, Dr Ford feels the reality is we may not have a vaccine for quite some time, so it is important to look at various ways to protect high-risk populations.

“Taking part in this trial might reduce my personal risk of contracting the virus, but it also answers a really important question about a readily available drug that could provide a level of protection against the virus,” she says.

“By protecting our healthcare workers we are also helping to protect the health of our patients.”

Enrol now to be part of a COVID-19 prevention trial

COVID SHIELD is recruiting participants until the end of October. If you are a healthcare worker (nurse, doctor, allied health or aged care worker) and would like to take part in the trial, register your interest on theCOVID Shield website.