Objective: To evaluate the efficacy and safety of leflunomide, an approved dihydroorotate dehydrogenase inhibitor, to treat COVID-19 patients with prolonged post-symptomatic viral shedding.
Methods: We conducted a prospective, randomized, controlled, open-label trial involving hospitalized adult COVID-19 patients with prolonged PCR positivity. Patients were randomly assigned to receive either leflunomide (50 mg, q12h, three consecutive times, orally; then 20 mg, once daily for 8 days), in addition to nebulized interferon alpha 2a (IFN α-2a, 3 million IU each time, twice daily for 10 days), or nebulized IFN α-2a alone for 10 days. The primary end point was the duration of viral shedding.
Results: A total of 50 COVID-19 patients with prolonged PCR positivity were randomized into 2 groups; 26 were assigned to the leflunomide group, and 24 were assigned to the interferon alone group. Treatment with leflunomide was not associated with a difference from the interferon alone group in the duration of viral shedding (hazard ratio for negative RT-PCR, 0.70; 95% confidence interval, 0.391-1.256; P=0.186). In addition, the patients given leflunomide did not have a substantially shorter length of hospital stay than patients treated with interferon alone, with median (IQRs) durations of 29.0 (19.3-47.3) days and 33.0 (29.3-42.8) days, respectively, P=0.170. Two leflunomide recipients were unable to complete the full 10-day course of administration due to adverse events.
Conclusions: In COVID-19 patients with prolonged PCR positivity, no benefit in terms of the duration of viral shedding was observed with the combined treatment of leflunomide and IFN α-2a beyond IFN α-2a alone.
Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; interferon alpha 2a; leflunomide; viral shedding.
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