WHO adds new drugs to COVID treatments amid Omicron surge

The World Health Organization (WHO) has added two more drugs to its guidelines for recommended treatments for COVID-19, as the more infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus triggers an unprecedented surge in cases around the world.

The drug baricitinib, which is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, is “strongly recommended” for patients with severe or critical COVID-19, in combination with corticosteroids, the UN agency’s panel of international experts said in the guidelines which were published by the British Medical Journal on Friday.

The drug reduces the need for ventilation and had been found to improve patients’ chances of survival with no sign of an increase in adverse reactions, the panel said.

The panel also gave a “conditional recommendation” for sotrovimab, an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment, for those with non-severe COVID-19 but at the very highest risk of hospital admission. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created compounds that mimic the body’s natural defence mechanism.

The new treatment recommendations come as the pandemic accelerates worldwide. More than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported to the WHO in the last week – by far the most in a single week – driven by the Omicron variant, which is replacing the Delta variant almost everywhere.

The recommendations were based on new evidence from seven trials involving more than 4,000 patients with non-severe, severe, and critical cases of COVID-19.

The “guidance adds to previous recommendations for the use of interleukin-6 receptor blockers and systemic corticosteroids for patients with severe or critical covid-19; conditional recommendations for the use of casirivimab-imdevimab (another monoclonal antibody treatment) in selected patients; and against the use of convalescent plasma, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine in patients with covid-19 regardless of disease severity,” the WHO said in a statement.

The French humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomed the new recommendations and urged governments to address patent protections to ensure that as many people as possible would be able to benefit from the treatments.

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