LONDON: A trial has begun in the UK of a new treatment to stop the development of severe symptoms in COVID-19 patients.
The treatment involves inhaling a protein called interferon beta, commonly used to treat multiple sclerosis, in order to stimulate the immune system before the virus can take hold.
Using a nebulizer, the drug is turned into a mist, making it easy to inhale, with each course currently costing around £2,000 ($2,733) to produce.
Early research found the treatment could cut the rate of serious cases of COVID-19 developing in patients by as much as 80 percent.
Synairgen, the UK company manufacturing the drug, said in a trial of 100 people, patients were up to three times more likely to be able to return to everyday activities quickly after completing the course, and hospital stays were reduced by a third. 
“To be viable, it will have to represent good value for money,” said Synairgen’s CEO Richard Marsden.
The new trial will involve 600 patients, and is set to include people in 19 other countries, with half of participants receiving the drug and the rest a placebo.
The trial is set to be completed by this summer, and the drug could be approved for use before the end of the year.
The effectiveness of interferon beta against COVID-19 was first discovered by scientists at the University of Southampton while researching its uses against other lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The university’s Prof. Tom Wilkinson, overseeing the trial, said: “If we had a positive study, we would hope to move rapidly into scaled manufacture and delivery of the drug in clinical practice.” 
He added that the development of alternatives to vaccines is essential as it could take years for the whole world to be inoculated against COVID-19, and that there would be many people unable or unwilling to receive a jab.
The threat of virus mutation and resistance to current vaccines also increases the need for alternative treatments, he said.

BANGKOK: A student activist has been arrested and charged under Thailand’s strict laws against insulting the monarchy after he was accused of defacing portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, his lawyer and police said on Thursday.
Sirichai Nathuang, 21, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, is one of at least 40 activists charged with “lese majeste” since November amid protests demanding the resignation of former junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The youth-led movement has also broken longstanding taboos by demanding reforms to the monarchy, which led to resumption of use of the lese majeste law, which had not been invoked since 2018. Breaches of the law, or section 112 of the criminal code, carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
Portraits of the king are ubiquitous in city streets in Thailand, as well as most schools and businesses.
Sirichai was accused of spray-painting messages on some of those portraits earlier this week and was arrested on Wednesday night, said Noraset Nanongtoom of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.
“Sirichai denied all accusations and will fight the case,” Noraset told Reuters, adding his client was released on bail.
Defacing a royal portrait was almost unheard of during the reign of the king’s father, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.
Noraset said Sirichai is accused by police of spraying messages calling for the abolition of the lese majeste law.
He said his client was the first of the protesters to be arrested under the law, while about 40 others were charged but not arrested.
Police deputy spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said police acted in accordance with the law. “There are no double standards,” he said.
A government spokesman last week said use of the law against some of the protesters was justified.
The opposition Move Forward Party said on Thursday it would seek to amend the lese majeste law when parliament reconvenes.
“The use of Section 112 in the current situation will only worsen the relationship between the king and the people in a democratic society,” party secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said in a statement.