A new drug developed by British scientists to treat Covid-19 patients is currently being tested at the University Hospital in Southampton.
Developed by the British biotechnology company Synairgen, it uses a protein called interferon beta, which our bodies produce when we get a viral infection.
The first results of the test are expected in late June.
There are currently few effective treatments for coronavirus, with doctors relying on patients’ immune systems.
What is the new drug?
Interferon beta is part of the body’s first line of defense against viruses, warning it to expect a viral attack, said Richard Marsden, chief executive of Synairgen, based in Southampton.
He says the coronavirus seems to be suppressing production as part of its strategy to escape our immune system.
The drug is a special formulation of beta interferon delivered directly to the respiratory tract when the virus is present, in the hope that a direct dose of protein will trigger a stronger antiviral response even in patients with already weak immune systems.
Interferon beta is commonly used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Synairgen has previously shown that its preparation can stimulate the immune response in the lungs of patients with asthma and other chronic lung conditions.
But we can only know if it works for Covid-19 patients after a rigorous clinical trial.
Kaye Flitney is one of 75 people enrolled in the clinical trial, filmed exclusively by BBC Panorama. Covid-19 patients like her have to inhale the drug through a nebulizer to get it deep into the lungs.
Kaye, 67, has trouble sitting in his hospital bed and coughs, putting the dispenser to his lips. She says that when she first discovered she had a coronavirus, her first thought was not for her own health.
“I was scared because my husband has heart failure. It would kill him. “
The 67-year-old woman, who was rushed to the hospital for breathing difficulties, said that taking the medication did not cause her much discomfort.
“You don’t notice that you take it until you finish. It’s not so bad. I could see myself taking it home. “
How does the test work?
The 75 volunteers involved so far have been recruited from a dozen hospitals across Britain. Half receive the drug, the other half is called a placebo – an inactive substance.
No one involved in the trial knows which patients received which treatment until the end of the trial.
“If you know it’s a drug, your mind may be biased,” says Sandy Aitken, the nurse who administers the drug.
The hope is that it will show that patients receiving the drug are much better than those who are not, says Professor Tom Wilkinson of the University of Southampton.
Synairgen’s pharmaceutical trial is the blueprint for a new accelerated clinical regimen that has just been implemented by the government.
The Accord program, as it is called, is designed to accelerate the development of new drugs for patients with Covid-19.
The first phase of the program involves six other drugs.
More than 100 treatments are being explored worldwide, and a drug called remdesivir, which was developed as a treatment for Ebola, has aroused particular excitement.
US officials have said there is “clear” evidence that helps people recover from the coronavirus.
How far could British treatment be?
The first results of the beta interferon trial are expected in late June. But even if the drug is promising, it will need to be further investigated before it can be used routinely on patients.
It could take months, although the government has said it will work as quickly as possible.
If found to be effective, the drug and the nebulizers used to deliver it should then be manufactured in large quantities.
Marsden says he is already talking to suppliers around the world about whether it will be possible to start producing the drug as soon as the clinical trial is completed.
However, he says it will still not be widely available before the end of the year.
You can watch Panorama: when will we be safe? at 7:30 p.m. BST on Monday, on BBC One and on the BBC iPlayer.