Skip to main content
Move the World.
COVID-19 Treatment

Lead Image © Kateryna_Kon / Adobe Stock

Timing appears to be everything when treating coronavirus patients.

A class of immune proteins called interferons shows promise as a COVID-19 treatment — but only when given to patients in the beginning stages of the illness. If given after an infection has caused inflammation, interferons can make a patient sicker.

This isn't the first COVID-19 treatment to exhibit this time-dependent characteristic, either, suggesting that doctors will need to carefully consider the stage of a patient's infection before prescribing a medication.

Interferons as a COVID-19 Treatment

Interferons are part of the body's natural defense against pathogens, and they help fight infections by interfering (get it?) with a virus's ability to replicate.

In the 1980s, researchers figured out how to create interferons in the lab. Since then, they've been approved to treat cancers, multiple sclerosis, and other illnesses — just inject them into a patient, and they'll get to work helping the immune system.

In May, a COVID-19 study out of New York reported that patients with severe cases of COVID-19 had more inflammation and fewer interferons than those with milder cases. Two weeks later, a study out of Paris reported the same finding.

Based on that, it's not surprising that other studies have shown that interferon can improve COVID-19 patient outcomes — an inhaled interferon medication decreased their chances of becoming severely ill by 79% — but the timing of the delivery is key.

Give it early, and the COVID-19 treatment might provide the immune boost needed to clear an infection.

But because one of the hallmarks of COVID-19 is its ability to cause a harmful overreaction of the immune system — a cytokine storm — a late delivery of interferons could make an illness worse.

Multi-Pronged Approach

Several studies of interferons are still ongoing, so we'll likely learn more about their utility as a COVID-19 treatment in the near future.

For now, it appears they're most likely to help people overcome mild cases or possibly even prevent at-risk populations from catching COVID-19 in the first place.

People with severe cases, meanwhile, will be better served by other drugs, such as the steroid dexamethasone, which has been shown to reduce death rates among ventilated patients by nearly one-third.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Coronavirus
How To Stop COVID-19's Killer Cytokine Storm
cytokine storm
Coronavirus
How To Stop COVID-19's Killer Cytokine Storm
COVID-19 can cause a potentially lethal cytokine storm, a runaway immune system response. Researchers are studying drugs they hope can calm the storm.

COVID-19 can cause a potentially lethal cytokine storm, a runaway immune system response. Researchers are studying drugs they hope can calm the storm.

Public Health
“That Is Insane”: The Strange, Deadly Coronavirus Immune Response
coronavirus immune response
Public Health
“That Is Insane”: The Strange, Deadly Coronavirus Immune Response
Research suggests the coronavirus immune response is different than with other viruses. It may help inform treatments and our understanding of COVID-19.

Research suggests the coronavirus immune response is different than with other viruses. It may help inform treatments and our understanding of COVID-19.

Coronavirus
Immune Signals May Predict Severe Cases of COVID-19
severe cases of covid-19
Coronavirus
Immune Signals May Predict Severe Cases of COVID-19
Severe cases of COVID-19 involve a runaway immune response called a cytokine storm. Immune system “signatures” may sharpen doctor’s forecasts.

Severe cases of COVID-19 involve a runaway immune response called a cytokine storm. Immune system “signatures” may sharpen doctor’s forecasts.

Public Health
Doctors Use AI to Test New Coronavirus Treatments on Patients
Coronavirus Treatments
Public Health
Doctors Use AI to Test New Coronavirus Treatments on Patients
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center launched a new trial that uses artificial intelligence to test promising coronavirus treatments as quickly as possible.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center launched a new trial that uses artificial intelligence to test promising coronavirus treatments as quickly as possible.

Public Health
The First Life-Saving Coronavirus Drug Is a Common Steroid
coronavirus drug breakthrough
Public Health
The First Life-Saving Coronavirus Drug Is a Common Steroid
A large clinical trial in the U.K. identified the cheap, widely available steroid dexamethasone as potentially the first life-saving coronavirus drug.

A large clinical trial in the U.K. identified the cheap, widely available steroid dexamethasone as potentially the first life-saving coronavirus drug.

Public Health
Antiviral Pill Shows Promise as Treatment for Coronavirus
Treatment for Coronavirus
Public Health
Antiviral Pill Shows Promise as Treatment for Coronavirus
The oral antiviral drug EIDD-2801 has emerged as a promising treatment for coronavirus, performing well in the lab and in mouse studies.

The oral antiviral drug EIDD-2801 has emerged as a promising treatment for coronavirus, performing well in the lab and in mouse studies.

Coronavirus
What We Know About How the Coronavirus Affects the Brain
Coronavirus Affects the Brain
Coronavirus
What We Know About How the Coronavirus Affects the Brain
Studies are finding that the coronavirus affects the brain as well as the lungs in some patients, causing delirium, strokes, and even fatal swelling.

Studies are finding that the coronavirus affects the brain as well as the lungs in some patients, causing delirium, strokes, and even fatal swelling.

Coronavirus
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
Coronavirus
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
The common cold can be caused by a coronavirus. New research suggests the immune response it causes may help protect against COVID-19.

The common cold can be caused by a coronavirus. New research suggests the immune response it causes may help protect against COVID-19.

Public Health
Will the Coronavirus End in the Summer?
Coronavirus in the Summer
Public Health
Will the Coronavirus End in the Summer?
Will the coronavirus end in the summer as a result of warmer temperatures? The public is hopeful, but here’s what the experts say.

Will the coronavirus end in the summer as a result of warmer temperatures? The public is hopeful, but here’s what the experts say.