Lilly partners with NIH to test Olumiant in patients hospitalized with COVID-19

As biopharma companies research potential COVID-19 drugs, Eli Lilly is gearing up for a study of Olumiant. (Eli Lilly)

Drug companies worldwide are testing existing medicines as potential treatments for COVID-19—plus working on new therapeutics—with few answers yet. Now, Eli Lilly is among the latest to kick off a trial through a partnership with federal health officials.

In conjunction with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Eli Lilly is planning to test rheumatoid arthritis drug Olumiant in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The study is starting this month in the U.S., and investigators eventually plan to expand testing to Europe and Asia. 

The drug’s “anti-inflammatory activity” might hold a benefit for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, Lilly said in a statement. The project started in February when Benevolent AI, a U.K. artificial intelligence group, identified Lilly’s barticitinib as a possible COVID-19 treatment not only for its anti-inflammatory effects, but also an antiviral effect, Lilly Bio-Medicines president Patrik Jonsson told FiercePharma. 

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Lilly then conducted preclinical studies on its own and discussed the drug’s promise with independent investigators who had tested it in COVID-19. Those studies featured small sample sizes and weren’t placebo-controlled, so Lilly couldn’t “draw any conclusions.” 

“Now is the right time in a sophisticated way” to test the drug in a controlled study, Jonsson said. Investigators aim to enroll “a couple hundred” patients, he added, and the team expects results by late June. Then, if the work proves promising, Lilly would discuss the results with regulators.  

RELATED: Biopharma's leading treatment hopes against COVID-19 

Lilly isn’t alone in testing an existing immunology medicine against COVID-19, which has spread worldwide and caused more than 116,000 deaths. It's also joining several other companies who are testing their own arthritis medications. 

Other arthritis drugs in testing in COVID-19 include Sanofi and Regeneron’s Kevzara, Roche’s Actemra, Pfizer’s Xeljanz and the controversial hydroxychloroquine, a decades-old medicine also approved for lupus and malaria.

“We just hope that one of those interventions ... and hopefully several, can bring some hope,” Jonsson said. 

Meanwhile, Lilly also unveiled plans to test an investigational monoclonal antibody, LY3127804, in pneumonia patients hospitalized with COVID-19. That trial is starting later this month in the U.S. 

As the outbreak plays out, Lilly also provided an update on its supply. The company doesn’t expect any drug shortages and will keep making Olumiant available for its approved uses, plus potential further testing should the drug show promise in COVID-19.  

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