Prof. Ami Shattner: “Initial results are promising, to say the least.
An ancient Greek drug derived from the saffron plant could improve treatment for people with severe COVID-19 and reduce COVID mortality by 50%, according to a report by an Israeli researcher from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Medical School published earlier this month in the European Journal of Internal Medicine.
The drug, colchicine, originated thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, where it was known for its special healing properties. It is one of the few medicines that have survived to this day. More recently, it has been used to treat and prevent inflammation caused by gout, which can lead to painful arthritis, and familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), common among Jews of North African descent.
Professor Ami Shattner has researched and analyzed all patients who have undergone controlled trials of this ancient drug over the past 20 years. He found that among its uses and potentials, colchicine is also effective in treating COVID-19.
According to Shattner, four controlled studies of about 6,000 coronavirus patients have been published to date on the effects of colchicine, all of which have shown “a significant improvement in severe coronavirus and, most importantly, a reduction in mortality of about 50% compared to those who were not treated with colchicine.”
The drug is cheap, requiring a small half-milligram dose per day, and has already been shown to be safe, he said, making colchicine “an important discovery that could make a significant contribution to improving morbidity and mortality in many patients if confirmed in further studies.”
The drug is also well tolerated, the doctor said. The only side effect in some patients may be episodes of diarrhea; about 10% of patients discontinue the drug for this reason.
The drug has been tested to treat the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, including in Canada, Greece, South Africa, Spain and Brazil. Many of these trials were double-blind placebo studies, making them more likely to be accurate.
“The results have been impressive,” he said.
Colchicine was first mentioned in an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1550 B.C., before the Jewish people left Egypt, according to biblical history. It was later used by physicians in ancient Greece, in the Byzantine period, and then by Arab physicians more than 1,000 years ago.
About 50 years ago, the use of the drug to treat FMF was tested by researchers at Tel Hashomer and Hadassah Sheba Medical Center not only against the acute attacks associated with the disease and their prevention, but also in protection against a serious complication of FMF – amyloidosis, which affects the kidneys.
More recently, several studies have begun to prove its effectiveness in treating acute pericarditis (edema around the heart, as well as in preventing syndrome after cardiac trauma and atrial fibrillation after cardiac surgery.
“As is well known, patients who have had a heart attack have a significantly increased risk of recurrent heart attack and stroke, and there are a lot of those patients,” Shattner said. “Studies in recent years have shown that because of its anti-inflammatory activity against atherosclerotic layers in the arteries, colchicine in small daily doses can effectively protect these patients.”
“The level of protection went as far as preventing about half of the recurrent events, and this impressive positive effect was also achieved in patients who had already undergone therapeutic catheterization and were taking optimal preventive treatment with aspirin and statins,” he added. “This is important news for a very large number of patients.”
Further randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm these preliminary results, Shattner said, which he believes will likely lead to expanded indications for the use of low-dose colchicine. However, there is no reason why the drug could not begin use now, he said.
“Although the initial data on the effects of colchicine on patients with coronavirus are very promising, more patients need to be involved in randomized controlled trials,” Shattner said. “But that won’t stop me from using the drug now in high-risk patients to hopefully reduce their chances of developing severe disease.”
“The drug is inexpensive for patients and society,” he continued. “By using it in patients with corona, we are losing nothing and gaining a lot.”