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COVID-19 patient in Taiwan recovers by using a rheumatoid arthritis drug

Doctors at Taipei Veterans General Hospital on Monday reported success in their treatment of a high-risk COVID-19 patient, with a drug commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis.

The patient, an elderly woman with a severe case of COVID-19, was transferred to the hospital in March in very poor condition, according to Liao Hsien-tzung, a doctor at the hospital.

She had to be put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to maintain her heart and lung function, and she was not responding well to antibiotics or medication to stabilize her blood pressure, Liao said.

Based on her condition, doctors at the hospital suspected that she was experiencing a cytokine storm, where the body attacks its own cells and tissues rather than just fighting off the virus, Liao said.

A cytokine storm, which can lead to organ failure, has been observed in many COVID-19 patients and is suspected to be the reason why many patients with only mild symptoms die suddenly.

In the case of the elderly patient, the doctors at Taipei Veterans General Hospital decided to treat her with a rheumatoid arthritis drug that targets interleukin-6 (IL-6), a type of cytokine, he said.

With that treatment, the patient's lungs improved significantly, and she no longer needed to be on an ECMO machine, Liao said, adding that she has since been discharged from hospital.

The rheumatoid arthritis drug was recently added to the Central Epidemic Command Center's (CECC) COVID-19 treatment guidelines, although the CECC noted that it had been effective in only 30 percent of COVID-19 cases in small-scale studies.

Tsai Chang-youh, director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, said that rheumatoid arthritis occurs when a patient's immune system attacks the lining of their joints, causing painful swelling, loss of function and in some cases, lung inflammation. (By CNA)

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