Background: Numerous clinical trials and observational studies have investigated various pharmacological agents as potential treatment for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), but the results are heterogeneous and sometimes even contradictory to one another, making it difficult for clinicians to determine which treatments are truly effective.
Methods and findings: We carried out a systematic review and network meta-analysis (NMA) to systematically evaluate the comparative efficacy and safety of pharmacological interventions and the level of evidence behind each treatment regimen in different clinical settings. Both published and unpublished randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and confounding-adjusted observational studies which met our predefined eligibility criteria were collected. We included studies investigating the effect of pharmacological management of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 management. Mild patients who do not require hospitalization or have self-limiting disease courses were not eligible for our NMA. A total of 110 studies (40 RCTs and 70 observational studies) were included. PubMed, Google Scholar, MEDLINE, the Cochrane Library, medRxiv, SSRN, WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, and ClinicalTrials.gov were searched from the beginning of 2020 to August 24, 2020. Studies from Asia (41 countries, 37.2%), Europe (28 countries, 25.4%), North America (24 countries, 21.8%), South America (5 countries, 4.5%), and Middle East (6 countries, 5.4%), and additional 6 multinational studies (5.4%) were included in our analyses. The outcomes of interest were mortality, progression to severe disease (severe pneumonia, admission to intensive care unit (ICU), and/or mechanical ventilation), viral clearance rate, QT prolongation, fatal cardiac complications, and noncardiac serious adverse events. Based on RCTs, the risk of progression to severe course and mortality was significantly reduced with corticosteroids (odds ratio (OR) 0.23, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.06 to 0.86, p = 0.032, and OR 0.78, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.91, p = 0.002, respectively) and remdesivir (OR 0.29, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.50, p < 0.001, and OR 0.62, 95% CI 0.39 to 0.98, p = 0.041, respectively) compared to standard care for moderate to severe COVID-19 patients in non-ICU; corticosteroids were also shown to reduce mortality rate (OR 0.54, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.73, p < 0.001) for critically ill patients in ICU. In analyses including observational studies, interferon-alpha (OR 0.05, 95% CI 0.01 to 0.39, p = 0.004), itolizumab (OR 0.10, 95% CI 0.01 to 0.92, p = 0.042), sofosbuvir plus daclatasvir (OR 0.26, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.88, p = 0.030), anakinra (OR 0.30, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.82, p = 0.019), tocilizumab (OR 0.43, 95% CI 0.30 to 0.60, p < 0.001), and convalescent plasma (OR 0.48, 95% CI 0.24 to 0.96, p = 0.038) were associated with reduced mortality rate in non-ICU setting, while high-dose intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) (OR 0.13, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.49, p = 0.003), ivermectin (OR 0.15, 95% CI 0.04 to 0.57, p = 0.005), and tocilizumab (OR 0.62, 95% CI 0.42 to 0.90, p = 0.012) were associated with reduced mortality rate in critically ill patients. Convalescent plasma was the only treatment option that was associated with improved viral clearance rate at 2 weeks compared to standard care (OR 11.39, 95% CI 3.91 to 33.18, p < 0.001). The combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin was shown to be associated with increased QT prolongation incidence (OR 2.01, 95% CI 1.26 to 3.20, p = 0.003) and fatal cardiac complications in cardiac-impaired populations (OR 2.23, 95% CI 1.24 to 4.00, p = 0.007). No drug was significantly associated with increased noncardiac serious adverse events compared to standard care. The quality of evidence of collective outcomes were estimated using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) framework. The major limitation of the present study is the overall low level of evidence that reduces the certainty of recommendations. Besides, the risk of bias (RoB) measured by RoB2 and ROBINS-I framework for individual studies was generally low to moderate. The outcomes deducted from observational studies could not infer causality and can only imply associations. The study protocol is publicly available on PROSPERO (CRD42020186527).
Conclusions: In this NMA, we found that anti-inflammatory agents (corticosteroids, tocilizumab, anakinra, and IVIG), convalescent plasma, and remdesivir were associated with improved outcomes of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Hydroxychloroquine did not provide clinical benefits while posing cardiac safety risks when combined with azithromycin, especially in the vulnerable population. Only 29% of current evidence on pharmacological management of COVID-19 is supported by moderate or high certainty and can be translated to practice and policy; the remaining 71% are of low or very low certainty and warrant further studies to establish firm conclusions.