Salisbury VA one of three sites for research study on COVID-19 treatment drug

Published 4:08 pm Wednesday, September 2, 2020

SALISBURY — A new research study is underway at the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center to test a drug to treat patients with COVID-19.

The Salisbury VA is one of only three hospitals across the country that are hosting a research study for PTC299, a drug manufactured by PTC Therapeutics that is also being tested in treating acute leukemia. The VA Health Care System was awarded the study out of a semi-competitive field of applicants.

“We’re kind of distinguished as being the third site to open across the nation,” said Dr. Robin Hurley, associate chief of staff for research and academic affairs at the VA Medical Center. “This is pretty new, pretty cutting-edge stuff. It’s a combination of several things. One is that we have a good reputation for working with our partners for industry trials whenever we have had trials in other disease processes. Companies like to work with hospitals that work with them.”

Along with boasting a reputation as being a good working partner, the Salisbury VA also serves about 90,000 veterans in the area. Having such a large potential patient pool was another reason the VA Medical Center was selected for the study.

Dr. Ruben Cohen, principal investigator for the study, has not yet administered PTC299 to a patient because no patient has met the criteria for being administered the drug.

“The principal investigator and the study team decide, if the patient is hospitalized and meets inclusion criteria and don’t have exclusion criteria, that they can be offered the trial,” Hurley said.

The drug can only be administered to a patient that recently received a positive COVID-19 test and is showing only mild symptoms of the virus. A patient who fits this criteria is offered the drug and will decide if they want to participate in the study or not. 

Whenever the first patient at the VA Medical Center is administered the drug, they won’t know for certain if they were given the drug or a placebo. Neither will the doctors. That’s because the trial is double-blind to ensure results are as accurate as possible. A patient has a 50% chance of receiving PTC299. It will only be revealed after the conclusion of the study whether or not a patient received a placebo or the real drug.

While a patient who has COVID-19 will not know for sure whether they are receiving PTC299 or a placebo, they will receive the same care no matter what. The staff at the Salisbury VA will continue to treat the virus to the best of their abilities.

“We continue to treat the patients with all of the existing treatments that are available for COVID-19 patients, including Remdesivir, Dexamethasone or plasma,” said Dr. Charles de Comarmond, associate chief of staff for medicine at the VA Medical Center. “None of these treatments are prohibited.”

Like most drugs that are being tested to treat COVID-19, PTC299 is not new.

“Virtually all the drugs currently being used to treat COVID-19 are what we call repurposed drugs,” de Comarmond said. There has not been a singular drug that has been made from scratch.”

Since PTC299 is a well-known drug, so are many of its side effects, which include nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, coughing and more. Doctors at the Salisbury VA would be able to explain these potential side effects to any patient who is considering taking the drug.

Across the global health care community, researchers and hospitals are working diligently to both formulate a COVID-19 vaccine and to determine which drugs can be repurposed to treat the virus most effectively. The staff at the VA say they are enthusiastic to play a role in this larger effort.

“Whenever there’s uncertainty among some new type of disease, a pandemic, an epidemic, contributions to research is what accelerates the path to actually getting medications that work,” de Comarmond said. “Trying to enroll patients in clinical trials helps accelerate the process of getting a drug from discovery to the point where everyone can get it in a safe manner without being involved in a clinical trial.”

Along with testing the new drug, the VA staff have been employing convalescent plasma therapy to treat patients with COVID-19. The Salisbury VA has performed the therapy, which is a transfusion, on six patients since May and is one of 80 VA facilities participating in the Mayo Clinic research study.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at

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