A Venezuelan airlines Conviasa flight between Cuba and Nicaragua arrived this past Wednesday in Managua. The plane was carrying eight thousand doses of Interferon Alpha-2B, a pharmaceutical with which Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo plan to combat the coronavirus.
Since the arrival of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in Nicaragua, the Ortega government has lauded the version of this drug produced in Cuba as a panacea. Hepatologist Edward Mena, who has worked with interferons for many years in the United States discovered the government’s plan and his reaction wasn’t positive. “Interferon Alfa-2B won’t help at all,” he warned.
Dr. Mena is one of the most respected medical specialists in the field of hepatology. Although he is Nicaraguan, his professional training took place in California. He’s the director of the Pasadena Liver Center and the California Liver Research Institute, located in Los Angeles County, institutions at which he’s been able to study a range of liver diseases along with the use of interferons.
Cuba is among nearly a dozen manufacturers worldwide that produce Interferon Alpha-2B, and when China began experiencing an increase in coronavirus infections, the propaganda of regimes aligned with the island promoted the idea that this drug helped slow the spread of the epidemic in China. In fact, the Sandinista government planted the idea among its followers that “Interferon Alpha-2B is the cure for coronavirus” disease.
However, Dr. Mena’s medical experience contradicts the labeling of interferons as a panacea, as promoted by the Ortega-Murillo government. “As of today, there have been no studies showing that interferons help with this type of virus. COVID-19 is novel within this family of viruses, but not all that novel. There have been other types of similar viruses such as SARS-CoV in 2003, MERS-CoV in 2011 and interferons have never been able to cure those kinds of viral infections,” noted the specialist.
In this interview with Confidencial, Dr. Mena insists there’s no proof that Interferon Alpha-2B slowed the spread of COVID-19 in China because other medications were also used at the time. He explains that thus far no pharmaceutical has been able to destroy the coronavirus, but if there’s one thing that is certain about interferons, it’s that they cause side effects that can be harmful. “It’s like going through chemotherapy,” says Dr. Mena.
While the worldwide medical community races to find a vaccine against coronavirus and a cure for COVID-19, Dr. Mena prescribes a cure which, until now, has been the most effective in slowing the spread of coronavirus infections: social distancing, quarantine and isolation. This is what he told us:
The Nicaraguan government has announced that Cuba donated eight thousand doses of the pharmaceutical Interferon Alfa-2B to fight the COVID-19 epidemic. Can this medicine help counteract coronavirus while we are still lacking a vaccine?
Dr. Edward Mena: In my opinion, Interferon Alpha-2B won’t help at all. I’ve used Interferon Alpha-2A and 2B for Hepatitis B and C, and we’ve never gotten good results. Typically, when we use interferons, we use them with another medicine called Ribavirin, and the two are used together to treat viral infections. Interferons alone aren’t going to work. Another problem we have with interferons is when to begin treatment. Do we begin when someone has had contact with an infected individual? Or do we wait until they have symptoms? Or when they become very ill? I maintain that using interferons when the patient is very ill will cause more harm. My professional opinion, after decades of using interferons, is that it’s not going to help at all.
If interferons are used to treat hepatitis, for which other illnesses can it be used? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
In my experience we’ve used them for Hepatitis B and C. We used interferons for one year to kill the Hepatitis C virus and had only a 40% chance of actually killing it. We’ve used them for Hepatitis B, for a year, and the probability of killing the virus was 10%. For which other illnesses do we use interferons? We use them for some cancers, blood diseases and again, the effectiveness of interferons isn’t very good.
Has it been clinically proven to help counteract coronavirus?
No. There have been no studies to date showing that interferons help with this kind of virus. Within this family of viruses, SARS-CoV-19 is novel, but not all that novel. There have been other types of similar viruses such as SARS-CoV in 2003, MERS-CoV in 2011 and interferons have never been able to cure those kinds of viral infections
Does the patient suffer from side effects when administered interferons?
It’s a nasty drug… the side effects are similar to those of chemotherapy, and there are many of them. The patient suffers from nausea, vomiting, body aches, anemia; their platelets and white blood cell count goes down…it’s a very strong and difficult treatment.
Many Nicaraguans have Heard about Interferon Alpha-2B ever since the government began hoping in some way that it might serve as a vaccine against coronavirus. What do you think about the government implying such a thing?
It’s a false hope. I don’t think it’s going to help. Interferon Alpha-2B is going to cause more harm that good. As I said, the side effects are horrible, and the benefit is zero.
The US has become the country with the greatest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. What drugs are being used there to combat coronavirus?
We have no drugs yet for combatting coronavirus. The best treatment is social distancing of at least 2 meters, quarantine and isolation. All the drugs we’re using are in the testing stage. Number one is hydroxychloroquine. Number two is a drug called Remdesivir made by Gilead Science. The third is Lopinavir/Ritinavir which is used for HIV/AIDS. They are all drugs in the testing stage. It’s still too early to say which drugs will work and which won’t.
In Houston they are using the plasma of patients who have recovered from the virus. What kind of results have been seen today using plasma?
Using the blood plasma of patients with or recovering from coronavirus infection is also being tested. This came about after a study in China looked at the plasma of 10 patients. The problem with the study is that they used several medications. One used interferons, another received Ribavirin, and another received a drug used in China called Arbidol. So, the study wasn’t done well. Now, this is very experimental. They are studying it (plasma use) in Houston and at the Mayo Clinic. But at this moment in time, it can’t be recommended.
The use of Interferon Alpha-2B is being promoted in Nicaragua as a solution to coronavirus; and at the same time the government has a policy of not recommending social distancing, and of promoting large gatherings. As a specialist, what’s your opinion of these contradictions?
It’s horrible. If you don’t practice isolation, social distancing and quarantine, half the populace is going to become infected and there will be deaths. If you don’t practice social distancing, you’ll see people dead in the streets.
In Nicaragua, health professionals have complained that they have been ordered to not use protective equipment such as masks because it will supposedly create alarm among patients. What risks do these professionals on the front lines of virus contention face by not using protective equipment?
It too is terrible. What’s going to happen is they’re going to infect more patients. It’s important to use protective equipment to protect the doctors and nurses on the front lines. If they don’t have masks, they are going to infect other patients and the infections will spread. This will make the situation worse. Not providing protection will do harm, and this protection must be provided right now.
As an expert, what would be your message to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health for dealing with this pandemic?
The most important thing you can do to deal with this pandemic is, first, to take it seriously. This virus kills people. Secondly, you must do testing, practice social distancing and quarantine, and use masks to protect the population. If you don’t practice these methods, 50% of patients are going to be dead. Right now, Nicaragua is 6 weeks behind the rest of the world. The effects we see in the rest of the world – in the US or Italy – Nicaragua will be seen in 6 weeks. You can’t hide the dead. When they have deaths due to pneumonia, they will be related to this virus. There’s no other explanation.