COVID-19 must be treated earlier to save lives, scientists advise

Infectious disease experts are urging earlier diagnosis and treatment against COVID-19 in order to reduce hospitalizations and deaths.

Researchers from UW Medicine and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center outlined their strategy in a review article published Tuesday in Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

"Without a vaccine, the best way to keep people out of the hospital and potentially dying from COVID-19 is to diagnose and treat early," lead author Joshua Schiffer, a physician and researcher in Fred Hutchinson's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, said in a statement.

"We've seen similar strategies for other infectious diseases like HIV, Ebola and influenza significantly lower transmission rates and mortality and believe it would have the same types of benefits for COVID-19," he added.

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Registered nurse Stephanie Mundo conducts a COVID-19 test at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York.

Registered nurse Stephanie Mundo conducts a COVID-19 test at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. ((AP Photo/Mary Altaffer))

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A majority of the clinical trials investigating potential therapies are working with patients who are already hospitalized for the SARS-CoV-2 infection.

"Given that the median time between development of symptoms and need for hospitalization is a week, a golden opportunity to intervene early is being missed," the authors wrote in the paper's abstract.

The strategy outlined by the researchers includes four main areas:

  • Widely available home testing with nasal self-swabbing.
  • Smaller, rapid studies using viral-shedding metrics and symptoms to measure risk of disease progression.
  • The ability to safely deliver therapies to infected patients' homes.
  • Including disproportionately affected minority and underserved communities.

"For many other viral infections, early treatment soon after development of symptoms is associated with decreased mortality, lower hospitalization rates and lower likelihood of transmission to others," the researchers said in the abstract.

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As of Tuesday, there were more than 2.1 million infections and 116,700 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S.