AstraZeneca's Calquence fails COVID-19 study, joining the list of repurposed meds that have fallen short

Laboratory
AstraZeneca said its blood cancer medicine Calquence failed a COVID-19 study in patients hospitalized with respiratory symptoms. (Getty/RossHelen)

Months after drugmakers launched an unprecedented COVID-19 research effort, some existing medicines have turned in promising results—but more of them have failed against the virus. And AstraZeneca’s blood cancer med Calquence just became one of them, falling short in two tests in hospitalized patients.

AstraZeneca said Thursday that the medicine—already approved in mantle cell lymphoma—didn't help patients survive the virus and reduce respiratory failure any better than supportive care did, citing data from two phase 2 trials. 

The company set out to test the medicine back in April after researchers at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute observed “some clinical benefit” when the drug was used in a small number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients with advanced lung disease at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Forbes reported at the time.

According to clinicaltrials.gov, a phase 1 trial is still recruiting patients to test Calquence, combined with a proton pump inhibitor, in COVID-19 patients.

RELATED: AstraZeneca to test blood cancer drug Calquence in COVID-19 after NIH sees 'some clinical benefit' 

Calquence isn’t the only established medicine to fail a study in COVID-19, of course. During the early stages of the pandemic, researchers eyed IL-6 inhibitors Actemra from Roche and Kevzara from Sanofi and Regeneron after a single-arm study in China found that seriously ill patients treated with Actemra quickly improved.  

Sanofi and Regeneron’s medicine didn’t pan out in further controlled testing, but Roche’s Actemra has posted mixed results. The medicine failed trials in COVID-19 pneumonia in June and July, but in September, researchers said it helped keep patients off ventilators.  

Elsewhere in the industry, Eli Lilly’s rheumatoid arthritis drug Olumiant in September posted data showing it reduced recovery time for hospitalized patients. At the time, Lilly said it would discuss the data with the FDA for a potential emergency use authorization. The next month, Olumiant racked up another win: Researchers said combining the Lilly drug with Gilead's remdesivir improved recovery times in hospitalized patients. 

Gilead’s remdesivir, an existing antiviral that had been tested against Ebola before the pandemic hit, has become the standard of care in hospitalized patients after extensive testing and FDA approval. Still, despite positive results in several trials, a large World Health Organization study found the medicine “appeared to have little or no effect on hospitalized COVID-19" patients, raising questions about its efficacy. Gilead brought in $873 million in remdesivir sales during the third quarter. 

Many tests on other existing medicines are ongoing, including an NIH study that started last month on immune modulators from Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb and AbbVie. Kaletra, an HIV med from AbbVie, failed its own study earlier in the pandemic.

RELATED: Gilead scored a full FDA approval for COVID-19 drug Veklury, but experts aren't convinced 

Meanwhile, a cadre of new medicines developed in response to the pandemic is coming to the fore. Eli Lilly’s novel antibody treatment just won emergency use authorization, and the Regeneron cocktail used to treat President Donald Trump is under review at the agency. 

All of the therapeutics work comes as companies—including AstraZeneca and its partner, Oxford—push vaccines forward, most notably with Pfizer’s big data release on Monday. The company said its vaccine was more than 90% effective in an interim analysis, raising hopes that Moderna’s mRNA vaccine will post similar numbers. Data for that vaccine are expected soon.