By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The smell of a pickle is one sign that a drug being tested at the University of Pennsylvania to treat COVID-19 might be working.

This is an inexpensive, generic drug used to prevent transplant organ rejection and it appears to also control an inflammatory immune reaction that can happen with some coronavirus patients. But there is a concern. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t sponsoring trials on the drug because there’s not much profit potential.

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“So, the patients don’t need the ICU,” Dr. Carl June said.

June, a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, is testing the drug cyclosporin for some hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

“To ask if this drug could be used for preventing severe inflammation,” June said.

It’s a phenomenon called cytokine storm, an out-of-control inflammatory immune response to the COVID virus that makes breathing difficult.

“Unremitting symptoms,” patient Carlos Tellez said.

Tellez was hospitalized with COVID-19 in mid-November after his oxygen level hit a dangerous low.

“Is there something else that’s going to happen here? Am I going to wake up in the morning or not?” Tellez recalled.

“Pressure in the center of my chest,” Dr. Negin Griffith said.

Griffith, a plastic surgeon in New Jersey, also had COVID-19. Both she and Tellez experienced significant improvements after taking cyclosporin.

“My temperature was gone,” Tellez said. “I could certainly breathe a lot easier.”

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Griffith knew she was better when her sense of taste and smell started returning one day at lunch.

“And I had a pickle on my plate and I could smell the pickle,” Griffith said, “which was incredible.”

She also had a candy bar.

“And I could smell that,” Griffith said. “And I could actually taste it when I took a bite.”

Previous research has shown cyclosporin, often used with other treatments, can improve COVID-19 survival.

“It’s not been prioritized by our system,” June said.

June wants the FDA to work faster to get the drug more widely tested.

“Hopefully, that would decrease the burden of patients in our hospitals,” June said.

The University of Pennsylvania is one of only two centers in the country testing the drug. The FDA says Operation Warp Speed has evaluated cyclosporin and it hopes to see it in another trial soon.


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Stephanie Stahl