Source: McGill News
In February, as the evidence mounted that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, was spreading to a growing number of countries across the globe, a select group of medical experts travelled to the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, for a special planning session. The purpose? To plot the WHO’s response to what was clearly becoming a major threat to international health.
One of the attendees at this special WHO forum was Srinivas Murthy, MDCM’06, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia and an infectious diseases and critical care physician at BC Children’s Hospital.
A global health specialist, Murthy took part in the WHO’s efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014. Today, he is playing a major role as the WHO confronts a new pandemic.
He is the co-chair of the WHO’s clinical research committee on COVID-19. He is also the head of the Canadian Treatments for COVID-19 (CATCO) trial, part of the WHO’s international Solidarity effort, an initiative involving researchers from dozens of countries that is assessing existing drugs like remdesivir, lopinavir/ritonavir and hydroxychloroquine to see if they can be used to help treat COVID-19. Several McGill researchers are involved in CATCO and some were part of a recent study that concluded that hydroxychloroquine was not effective in preventing COVID-19 in patients who had been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Murthy recently spoke to the McGill News about his work with CATCO and Solidarity.
It feels like it happened a world ago. The main thing that came out of that was an agreement that we needed to have a coordinated approach to clinical trials and vaccine development and epidemiological studies. And that has certainly been our approach with Solidarity. We recognized the need to work together as much as possible across borders and with the whole planet in mind rather than simply looking at one country at a time.
Well, I have been spending a lot of time on Zoom. When you cast your net that wide, you do come across a lot of competing interests that can make [such partnerships] very challenging. But we all recognize the importance of the principles behind this research partnership and what we are aiming to do by working together. The typical ways [of doing research] don’t necessarily work in the context of something like a pandemic. By working together, we can come up with answers more effectively and more quickly. There is widespread agreement on that, but it can still be tricky at times. There’s a saying – everyone wants coordination, but no one wants to be coordinated.
The research itself has been going well. There are all kinds of clinical trials underway, but the key to all this is really the patients that are included in the trials. We don’t know what works for COVID-19 yet, so we need outpatients and inpatients who are ill. We need to study [these potential treatments] to see what we can do better to help those patients. All patients should have access to [potential treatment], regardless of where they are and regardless of who they are. Providing access to these clinical trials is almost as important as providing access to care, because we want to make sure we learn as much as possible from each patient in the hopes of coming up with answers that can benefit as many patients as possible.
If you are working on your own, it’s relatively easy to get your own small study up and running, but you probably won’t learn that much from a limited sample. It’s harder to [create partnerships] across regions and across borders to do something that is much bigger, but statistically it’s more effective when you can prove your results that way.
Trying to answer questions by yourself is far less useful than trying to answer them along with everybody else. And I think all the traditional barriers to that, whether it is individual recognition, individual ownership, publication policies – those things aren’t as important as answering the question and answering the question in an effective way.
There is definitely a huge amount of pressure associated with this work. I think we all feel it. Governments want answers, patients want answers, clinicians want answers. Hopefully we’ll be able to deliver on that.
I do a lot of clinical trials and this is a very unusual context to be working in. The public discourse [around some of these drugs] keeps shifting. But our job is stay focused and to do the work in a scientifically rigorous manner.