Valley Baptist participating in clinical trials that may benefit COVID-19 patients

As health officials and local hospitals continue to manage an ongoing surge of COVID-19 patients, Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen is participating in a clinical trial with the ultimate hopes of improving the outcomes of patients who are hospitalized due to extreme effects of the virus.

Clinical trials are an important tool for physicians to learn how to successfully treat a wide array of medical conditions from influenza to stroke, said Dr. Christopher Romero, internal medicine specialist and physician adviser at Valley Baptist-Harlingen.

“Clinical trials are research studies often designed to help determine which treatments are best for a particular disease. These trials are usually based upon the results of treating similar diseases, or from positive results in lab experiments using models of the disease being studied,” Romero said. “There are numerous theories and animal studies that point to potential new cures for most diseases, but it is only through well-designed scientific clinical trials that we actually learn which treatment is best for a specific health problem.”

When that health problem is one that the medical community has not faced before, clinical trials become a critical part of the learning process as they can dictate the course of future treatments and additional research, Romero said.

“Clinical trials become vitally important with new threats such as COVID19; as we don’t have treatments, vaccines, or well established care guidelines like we have with other infections such as the flu,” he said.

The current clinical trial, dubbed EMPACTA, is being performed in collaboration with Genentech and Pan American Clinical Research, and will help determine how effective a specific drug is in the treatment of patients hospitalized due to COVID-19.

“As we have learned more and more about COVID-19 over the past six months, it is clear that the body’s own inflammatory response to the virus causes many of the problems seen with this infection,” Romero said. “There are a number of investigational studies to see if addressing the patient’s response to the infection can help improve outcomes. EMPACTA will evaluate the efficacy and safety of tocilizumab compared with a placebo in combination with standard of carein hospitalized participants with COVID-19 pneumonia. While this study is now closed to adding more patients, but we will continue to follow those that have been enrolled.”

While discovering new ways to treat COVID-19 is a worthy goal, the EMPACTA study is of added importance to local residents as it seeks to specifically gauge the effectiveness on tocilizumab on minority populations, which have been shown to be at higher risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19 due in large part to a higher rate of comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes, Romero said.

“The Hispanic community and other minorities tend to be underrepresented in clinical trials,” he said. “We are dedicated to continuingto work closely with community partners to expand the research opportunities here in the Rio Grande Valley. This will not only help promote the future of medical care worldwide, but will ensure that the Hispanic community is well studied to ensure we can better understand which treatments work best in our population.”

While Romero said he hopes that the EMPACTA study and future clinical trials yet to come will yield vital information physicians can use in the fight against COVID-19, he indicated that local residents can continue to do their part to prevent the spread of the virus to buy time for those studies to bear fruit.

“While we continue to search for new ways to treat COVID-19, we all need to do everything that we can to prevent its spread. While we may not have a vaccine or a cure yet, we all have powerful tools at our disposal to reduce the number of people infected in the first place,” Romero said. “When people wear a face mask in public, maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from others, and practice frequent hand hygiene, it reduces the spread of the virus. We’re imploring the people of the Rio Grande Valley – our friends, our neighbors, our families – to do these three simple things to help us save lives.”


  • As recommended by the CDC and local health officials, individuals should wear a cloth face covering if they need to leave their home for essential travel.
  • Stay home if you have a cold to prevent the spread of infection.
  • Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use alcohol based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Keep six feet away from others while in public.
  • Contact your physician and seek medical care if you are having trouble breathing, confusion, or high fever.
  • If you will be seeking medical care for symptoms that you think may be from COVID-19, please call ahead to notify your physician so that they may be ready for your arrival.

For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention website (, as well as the Cameron County Public Health Department website (