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How can placebos help find effective treatments for diseases like COVID-19?

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April 8, 2020

COVID-19 (the new coronavirus) had never been seen in humans before the 2019 outbreak. What we know about COVID-19 changes daily. It will take new research to find the best ways to stop new infections. Research is also being done to find the best ways to treat those who become very sick because of the virus.

Clinical trials will be one way that this research is done. Clinical trials find new and better ways to prevent and treat diseases. Trials sometimes use placebos.

What is a placebo?

A placebo is a substance or treatment that does not have any real medical effects. A placebo can be a pill, a shot, or device made to look like the real medical product. Placebos are used in some clinical trials.

Why are placebos used in some clinical trials?

Using a placebo is a way to help researchers see if there is a real effect from a new medical treatment. Sometimes just believing you are getting a real treatment can affect how you think and this helps you feel better. This is called the placebo effect. Making sure everything that happens in a study is the same for everyone avoids the placebo effect.

Do all clinical trials use placebos?

No. Many trials do not use placebos. The choice to use a placebo depends on many factors. For example, there are proven treatments for many diseases. In these cases, the research may compare two real treatments to see which one is best. A placebo might not be used in this type of research.

How can placebos help with research on diseases like COVID-19?

When there is no known treatment, research may compare a new treatment to a placebo. This approach may be used to try to find a COVID-19 vaccine. In this case, some people would get the vaccine and some would get the placebo.

Sometimes clinical trials are done to improve current treatments. In these cases, a placebo may be added to a known treatment to find out if it helps. Until proven treatments are found, people with COVID-19 may get standard medical care for their symptoms. Some COVID-19 clinical trials will try to find out if adding a drug to standard medical care is better than standard care alone. Placebos can help to answer that question.

Using placebos can help find side effects. Negative side effects are unwanted effects of a medical treatment. There can be positive side effects too. A side effect may be found when an effect happens more often in people who get the real treatment compared to people who get the placebo.

Are there safeguards to assure placebos are used fairly?

Yes, there are safeguards to assure placebos are used fairly. In many trials that use placebos, neither the doctor nor patient know who gets the real drug and who gets the placebo. This is one way to make sure everyone has an equal chance to get the new treatment. The chances of having a side effect are equal too.

Research has not always helped all people equally. Continue reading to learn more about other protections that are in place for people who take part in research.

Many different types of COVID-19 research will be done. Placebos are just one tool that researchers may use. If you want to know more about how clinical trials work, visit WePartner4Research. There you can also learn why research volunteers are so important for improving health, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic.


The official name of the virus that started a worldwide outbreak in late 2019 is “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2.”  The abbreviation is SARS-CoV-2. When the virus infects someone, the diagnosis is called “Coronavirus Disease 2019.” The abbreviation is COVID-19. In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease.

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