Melbourne researchers plan a trial among doctors and nurses in hospitals in Melbourne to test whether a lupus drug can help prevent infection with COVID-19.
Health Minister Greg Hunt expects to be able to approve the $3 million funding within two days, and the trial will then need ethics approval.
Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute Doug Hilton said the trial could start within four weeks, coinciding with an expected uptick in cases.
The drug is hydroxychloroquine, planquenil, used for decades to treat lupus.
Infectious disease physician Professor Marc Pellegrini, who is leading the trial, said it would be tested in doctors, nurses and other health workers across hospital departments, in a trial involving 2250 people, half on the drug and half on a placebo.
An advantage of the drug was that its safety had already been established over 70 years of use.
To date, most of the experiments had been in the test-tube, where it stopped the virus replicating and where the evidence was very strong. But there was no data on its effectiveness in preventing or treating people with COVID-19.
"We think the drug holds great promise," he said. "There's a lot of evidence to support that it might work, but we need to do the clinical trial to be certain that the drug does work."
Interim results would be available two to three months after the trial began, and if it was found to be effective it could be rolled out quickly to prevent disease.
Professor Pellegrini said hydroxychloroquine inhibited "protein trafficking" - how cells made and distributed proteins - but the mechanism by which it worked in lupus and in COVID-19 was unknown.
"It was a bonanza that someone found this drug was useful. Who that was and why, we don't know," he said.
Other trials around the world are investigating the drug for treating people with COVID-19, but Professor Hilton it might be that, like flu drugs, it was more effective before people contracted COVID-19 or in the very early stages of the disease.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
We have removed our paywall from our stories about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly changing situation and we want to make sure our readers are as informed as possible. If you would like to support our journalists you can subscribe here.