Israeli experts urge caution over drug company’s claim of COVID-19 cure

Israeli experts urge caution over drug company’s claim of COVID-19 cure

‘Handle with care,’ says leading virologist, after Zion Medical says its questionable HIV drug ‘improved and healed’ coronavirus patients in the Republic of the Congo

Illustrative photo of pharmaceutical pills (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of pharmaceutical pills (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Experts are advising a surfeit of caution over an Israeli company’s claims that it has a “cure” for the coronavirus and will subject it to clinical trial in an unspecified Western country.

Zion Medical issued a statement Tuesday saying that its HIV drug Gamorra — whose claim to cure the AIDS-causing virus has been highly controversial — was “proved statistically” to have “improved and healed” coronavirus patients who were given the medicine in a clinical trial in the Republic of the Congo.

But in an interview with The Times of Israel, the company’s chief science officer, Einat Finkelshtain, admitted that the treatment in the Republic of the Congo wasn’t a clinical trial. She called it a “standalone” initiative to provide treatment to patients on a compassionate use basis, “independent” from a clinical trial.

She also said that the two-year-old drug hasn’t received approval anywhere apart from the Republic of the Congo, where it was okayed a month ago for treating HIV and cancer.

She said that the company has started trials for HIV treatment in Uganda, and plans to complete the process with joint testing in Uganda, Tasmania, and possibly Israel.

Zion Medical’s chief science officer, Einat Finkelshtain (Rafi Daluya)

According to Zion Medical, 15 critical coronavirus patients in the Republic of the Congo were given a nine-day course of Gamorra, starting on April 8, as well as medicines regularly administered to COVID-19 patients in the hospital. It reported that by the end of treatment four patients tested negative, and all others had since been discharged from the ICU.

Zion Medical said that 14 out of 15 other patients who received only standard COVID-19 drugs died over the same nine days, and one was still in critical condition. Patients were chosen at random for the two groups, but doctors and patients knew who was receiving the drug, and no placebo was given to patients in the second group, Finkelshtain said.

She claimed that the outcome is “very significant in the war against COVID-19,” while acknowledging that more research is needed. She said preparations are underway for a clinical trial for coronavirus treatment in an as-yet undecided Western country, possibly in America.

Zion Medical, based in Rehovot and registered as a business in Holland, was established in 2014 by Zyon Ayni, a Dutch-Israeli businessman with a real estate background, and is focused on developing medical solutions for HIV/AIDS and cancer.

In 2018 it claimed Gamorra could completely cure HIV, a claim widely criticized by AIDS groups as false.

Medical workers wearing protective clothing as they stand outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, May 5, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Virologist Ran Taube, an expert in HIV drugs from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, reacted cautiously to the coronavirus announcement. “Handle with care,” he said.

Taube told The Times of Israel that in his view, more information is needed on the mechanism through which the drug is believed to help coronavirus patients, and many more people must be tested.

An immunologist at another Israeli institution, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the results from the Republic of the Congo appear “suspicious” and seem “circumstantial.” He commented: “The black and white all or nothing outcome is suspicious.”

Even in a group of critical coronavirus patients, he would not expect 14 out of 15 to die, he noted. “I would be very cautious,” he said. “Every day we see a new drug that is claimed to be helping, but without randomized, double blind large clinical trials, some of this is just circumstantial.”

He added: “We often see a lot of companies, and I am not saying that this is the case here, that are trying to boost their revenues and share price by releasing such statements.”

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