Interferons (Alfa, Beta)
Last Updated: August 27, 2020
Interferons are a family of cytokines with antiviral properties. They have been suggested as a potential treatment for COVID-19 because of their in vitro and in vivo antiviral properties.
The COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel recommends against the use of interferons for the treatment of patients with severe or critical COVID-19, except in a clinical trial (AIII). There are insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of interferon beta for the treatment of early (i.e., <7 days from symptom onset) mild and moderate COVID-19.
Studies have shown no benefit of interferons in patients with other coronavirus infections (i.e., Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS], severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS]) who have severe or critical disease. In addition, interferons have significant toxicities that outweigh the potential for benefit. Interferons may have antiviral activity early in the course of infection. However, there is insufficient data to assess the potential benefit of interferon use during early disease versus the toxicity risks.
Clinical Data for COVID-19
Press release, July 20, 2020: A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted in the United Kingdom evaluated inhaled interferon beta-1a (once daily for up to 14 days) in nonventilated patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Compared to the patients receiving placebo (n = 50), the patients receiving inhaled interferon beta-1a (n = 48) were more likely to recover to ambulation without restrictions (HR 2.19; 95% CI, 1.03–4.69; P = 0.04), had decreased odds of developing severe disease (OR 0.21; 95% CI, 0.04–0.97; P = 0.046), and had less breathlessness. Additional detail is required to fully evaluate these findings and their implications. Of note, inhaled interferon beta-1a as used in this study is not commercially available in the United States.1
Preprint manuscript posted online, July 13, 2020: An open-label, randomized trial at a single center in Iran evaluated subcutaneous interferon beta-1a (three times weekly for 2 weeks) in patients with severe COVID-19. There was no difference in the primary outcome of time to clinical response between the interferon beta-1a group (n = 42) and the control group (n = 39), and there was no difference between the groups in overall length of hospital stay, length of intensive care unit stay, or duration of mechanical ventilation. The reported 28-day overall mortality was lower in the interferon beta-1a group; however, four patients in the interferon beta-1a group who died before receiving the fourth dose of interferon beta-1a were excluded from the analysis, which makes it difficult to interpret these results.2
Combination of Interferon Beta-1b, Lopinavir/Ritonavir, and Ribavirin in the Treatment of Hospitalized Patients With COVID-19
An open-label, Phase 2 clinical trial randomized 127 participants (median age of 52 years) 2:1 to combination antiviral therapy or lopinavir/ritonavir. In the combination antiviral therapy group, the treatment regimen differed by time from symptom onset to hospital admission. Participants hospitalized within 7 days of symptom onset (n = 76) were randomized to triple drug therapy (interferon beta-1b 8 million units administered subcutaneously every other day for up to 7 days total, lopinavir/ritonavir, and ribavirin); those hospitalized ≥7 days after symptom onset (n = 51) were randomized to double therapy (lopinavir/ritonavir and ribavirin) because of concerns regarding potential inflammatory effects of interferon. Patients in the control group received lopinavir/ritonavir alone regardless of the time from symptom onset to hospitalization. The study participants were patients in Hong Kong with confirmed severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection who were hospitalized, regardless of disease severity, until they had two negative nasopharyngeal (NP) swab tests.
The time to a negative result on a polymerase chain reaction SARS-CoV-2 test on an NP swab (the primary endpoint) was shorter in the combination therapy group than in the control group (median of 7 days vs. 12 days; P = 0.001). The combination group had more rapid clinical improvement as assessed by the National Early Warning Score (NEWS) 2 and Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score and a shorter hospital stay (median of 9 days for the combination group vs. 14.5 days for the control group; P = 0.016). There was no difference in oxygen use between the groups. The antiviral and clinical effect was more pronounced in the patients hospitalized within 7 days of symptom onset, suggesting that interferon beta-1b with or without ribavirin was the critical component of the combination antiviral therapy. The study provides no information about the effect of interferon beta-1b when administered ≥7 days after symptom onset.3
In a retrospective cohort study of 77 adults with moderate COVID-19 in China, participants were treated with nebulized interferon alfa-2b, nebulized interferon alfa-2b with umifenovir, or umifenovir only. The time to viral clearance in the upper respiratory tract and reduction in systemic inflammation was faster in the interferon alfa-2b groups than in the umifenovir only group. However, the results of this study are difficult to interpret because participants in the interferon alfa-2b with umifenovir group were substantially younger than those in the umifenovir only group (mean age of 40 years in the interferon alfa-2b with umifenovir group vs. 65 years in the umifenovir only group) and had fewer comorbidities (15% in the interferon alfa-2b with umifenovir group vs. 54% in the umifenovir only group) at study entry. The nebulized interferon alfa-2b formulation is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.4
Clinical Data for SARS and MERS
Interferon beta used alone and in combination with ribavirin in patients with SARS and MERS has failed to show a significant positive effect on clinical outcomes.5-9
In a retrospective observational analysis of 350 critically ill patients with MERS6 from 14 hospitals in Saudi Arabia, the mortality rate was higher among patients who received ribavirin and interferon (beta-1a, alfa-2a, or alfa-2b) than among those who did not receive either drug.
A randomized clinical trial that included 301 patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome10 found that intravenous interferon beta-1a had no benefit over placebo as measured by ventilator-free days over a 28-day period (median of 10.0 days in the interferon beta-1a group vs. 8.5 days in the placebo group) or mortality (26.4% in the interferon beta-1a group vs. 23.0% in the placebo group).
See ClinicalTrials.gov for a list of ongoing clinical trials for interferon and COVID-19.
The most frequent adverse effects of interferon alfa include flu-like symptoms, nausea, fatigue, weight loss, hematological toxicities, elevated transaminases, and psychiatric problems (e.g., depression and suicidal ideation). Interferon beta is better tolerated than interferon alfa.11,12
The most serious drug-drug interactions with interferons are the potential for added toxicity with concomitant use of other immunomodulators and chemotherapeutic agents.11,12
Considerations in Pregnancy
Analysis of data from several large pregnancy registries did not demonstrate an association between exposure to interferon beta-1b preconception or during pregnancy and an increased risk of adverse birth outcomes (e.g., spontaneous abortion, congenital anomaly),13,14 and exposure did not influence birth weight, height, or head circumference.15
Considerations in Children
There are limited data on the use of interferons for the treatment of respiratory viral infections in children.
- Synairgen announces positive results from trial of SNG001 in hospitalised COVID-19 patients [press release]. July 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.synairgen.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/200720-Synairgen-announces-positive-results-from-trial-of-SNG001-in-hospitalised-COVID-19-patients.pdf. Accessed August 24, 2020.
- Davoudi-Monfared E, Rahmani H, Khalili H, et al. A randomized clinical trial of the efficacy and safety of interferon beta-1a in treatment of severe COVID-19. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2020;64(9):e01061-20. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32661006.
- Hung IF, Lung KC, Tso EY, et al. Triple combination of interferon beta-1b, lopinavir-ritonavir, and ribavirin in the treatment of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19: an open-label, randomised, Phase 2 trial. Lancet. 2020;395(10238):1695-1704. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32401715.
- Zhou Q, Chen V, Shannon CP, et al. Interferon-alpha2b treatment for COVID-19. Front Immunol. 2020;11:1061. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32574262.
- Al-Tawfiq JA, Momattin H, Dib J, Memish ZA. Ribavirin and interferon therapy in patients infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus: an observational study. Int J Infect Dis. 2014;20:42-46. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24406736.
- Arabi YM, Shalhoub S, Mandourah Y, et al. Ribavirin and interferon therapy for critically ill patients with Middle East respiratory syndrome: a multicenter observational study. Clin Infect Dis. 2020;70(9):1837-1844. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31925415.
- Chu CM, Cheng VC, Hung IF, et al. Role of lopinavir/ritonavir in the treatment of SARS: initial virological and clinical findings. Thorax. 2004;59(3):252-256. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14985565.
- Omrani AS, Saad MM, Baig K, et al. Ribavirin and interferon alfa-2a for severe Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus infection: a retrospective cohort study. Lancet Infect Dis. 2014;14(11):1090-1095. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25278221.
- Shalhoub S, Farahat F, Al-Jiffri A, et al. IFN-alpha2a or IFN-beta1a in combination with ribavirin to treat Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus pneumonia: a retrospective study. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2015;70(7):2129-2132. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25900158.
- Ranieri VM, Pettila V, Karvonen MK, et al. Effect of intravenous interferon beta-1a on death and days free from mechanical ventilation among patients with moderate to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2020. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32065831.
- Interferon alpha-2b (Intron A) [package insert]. Food and Drug Administration. 2018. Available at: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2018/103132Orig1s5199lbl.pdf.
- Interferon beta-1a (Rebif) [package insert]. Food and Drug Administration. 2019. Available at: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2019/103780s5204lbl.pdf.
- Sandberg-Wollheim M, Alteri E, Moraga MS, Kornmann G. Pregnancy outcomes in multiple sclerosis following subcutaneous interferon beta-1a therapy. Mult Scler. 2011;17(4):423-430. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21220368.
- Hellwig K, Duarte Caron F, Wicklein EM, Bhatti A, Adamo A. Pregnancy outcomes from the global pharmacovigilance database on interferon beta-1b exposure. Ther Adv Neurol Disord. 2020;13:1756286420910310. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32201504.
- Burkill S, Vattulainen P, Geissbuehler Y, et al. The association between exposure to interferon-beta during pregnancy and birth measurements in offspring of women with multiple sclerosis. PLoS One. 2019;14(12):e0227120. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31887199.