Researchers will test whether a gout drug can help coronavirus-infected adults fight off the illness at home.
Oxford University experts have begun trials on colchicine to discover whether it can speed up recovery time and stop people needing hospital care.
The anti-inflammatory drug — which costs just 30p per pill — has been doled out to gout patients for decades. It is used to treat and prevent systemic inflammation, a feature of gout and the worst cases of coronavirus.
Canadian experts found the drug showed promise in reducing hospital admissions in Covid patients. And Brazilian academics last month claimed it may prevent severely-ill patients from needing oxygen.
But little is known about colchicine's effectiveness in reducing overall recovery time, or whether it can fight most symptoms.
It will be added to the Oxford-run PRINCIPLE drug trial, which has recruited 4,400 volunteers to test different medications on Covid patients who have been infected recently.
Oxford scientists will test whether gout drug colchicine will help stop adults with symptoms of Covid fight off the illness
Colchicine is derived from the toxic autumn crocus flower in the UK and Europe, and has been used as a traditional joint-swelling remedy since 1500 BC.
The drug, branded as Colcrys, stops white blood cells from overreacting to infection, which can lead to organ failure and death.
Studies have showed colchicine is safe but its side effects include diarrhea, stomach pain, constipation, nausea and vomiting.
Volunteers on the PRINCIPLE trial are randomly assigned to take medications such as budesonide, an inhaled corticosteroid, or get regular treatment in hospital.
The trial has already found antibiotics azithromycin and doxycycline not to be effective treatments during the early stages of Covid.
Trial co-lead, Professor Chris Butler, a general practitioner and Professor of Primary Care at the University Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, said investigating treatments for Covid are vital alongside the nation's vaccination drive
Participants given colchicine will receive a two-week course of 0.5mg tablets once a day.
What is colchicine? The 30p drug used to tackle gout
Colchicine is used to treat and prevent systemic inflammation, a feature of gout and the worst cases of coronavirus
Colchicine is a medicine for treating inflammation and pain.
The pills are typically prescribed to treat flare-ups or attacks of gout
It is also used to prevent increased flare-ups of gout when a patient first starts on a medicine like allopurinol – taken to manage the condition in the long term.
Colchicine is also prescribed to prevent flare-ups of symptoms of familial Mediterranean fever (FMF) – an inherited inflammatory condition.
The usual dose for gout is one 0.5mg tablet, taken two to four times a day.
Patients are advised to avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice while taking colchicine.
Some patients find it is gentler on their stomach if they take the tablets with or after food.
It is not usually recommended in pregnancy or when breastfeeding.
Doctors will track their condition for a month, comparing their symptoms and illness with volunteers given other drugs or no treatment.
Professor Chris Butler, one of the Oxford scientists behind the trial, said investigating treatments for Covid are vital.
He said: ‘We are asking for eligible volunteers aged over 18 from all across the country to join the PRINCIPLE trial when they first experience Covid symptoms, and help in the search for potential treatments.
'With Covid still circulating in the community, and little known about the effect of new viral variants on younger adults, it is vital we seize this window of opportunity to generate high-quality evidence to determine which treatments work, and which don’t.
‘Even with successful vaccines and other preventable measures in place, the availability of treatments with a solid evidence-base has a critical role to play in ending this pandemic, yet there are still very few options for treating Covid before it becomes a severe illness.’
Participants taking colchicine must be aged 18-64 and have suffered shortness of breath during the first two weeks of their illness.
Or they must have certain underlying health conditions that put them at risk of severe illness or be aged over 65.
The trial has so far determined that the antibiotics azithromycin and doxycycline are not effective treatments during the early stages of Covid.
It is still investigating the effects of budesonide, an inhaled corticosteroid, in people aged over 50.
Junior Health Minister Lord Bethell said: ‘The UK continues to be a leading force in finding and rolling out safe and effective treatments for Covid-19, with life-saving treatments dexamethasone and tocilizumab identified by our research.
'The Government-funded PRINCIPLE trial presents an exciting opportunity to find treatments outside of hospital, stopping people’s symptoms from worsening at an earlier stage of the disease.
‘The expansion of the trial, with a new treatment arm that is open to a wider patient cohort, is a promising development — I encourage as many eligible people as possible over the age of 18 to sign up to the trial and play a vital role in finding more treatments for this terrible virus.’