Inside race to find cure for Covid-19

Saturday April 4 2020

Vaccine search. A researcher works on virus

Vaccine search. A researcher works on virus replication in order to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus COVID-19, in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on March 26. AFP PHOTO 

By Dicta Asiimwe

With about a third of the global population under some form of quarantine or lockdown to slowdown the spread of Covid-19, there is an ongoing race to find a remedy for this disease that is devastating countries and cities.
Different countries are already registering alarming numbers of deaths and infections.

As of Thursday, Johns Hopkins University had tallied a total of 962,977 confirmed cases, while 49,236 had died from Covid-19. The infected cases are now more than one million.

Uganda had by close of Thursday confirmed 45 cases of infected persons, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) says African countries should be worried because the region is starting to experience community spread.

“With more than 6,000 Covid-19 cases reported in Africa, the virus is threatening fragile health systems on the continent,” reads a statement from WHO.

WHO notes that Africa has now reported 6,000 cases.
In places like the DR Congo, it has been reported that Covid-19 patients are now spreading out of the capital Kinshasa, breeding fears of community spread.

Covid-19 has already strained several health systems, including the Italian one which ranked highly in Europe.
To counter the quick spread of the virus, countries, education institutions and private businesses have been working quickly to come up with a sustainable remedy that could end the dependence on social distancing as a measure to slowdown the spread of the disease.

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Covid-19 has no known remedy at the moment, but WHO is working on a major clinical trial that will compare different treatment strategies that are being used by doctors in the fight against this global pandemic.

There are at least 12 remedies that are being tried currently and WHO wants these streamlined into randomised clinical trials, so that concrete ways to treat Covid-19 could be found quickly.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine is one of the most well-known of these remedies.
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine was popularised about two weeks ago, by US President Donald Trump in an announcement in one of his daily press conferences.

He told the press this old anti-malarial drug had some healing qualities when used to treat Covid-19 patients.
However, some doctors, including one of his senior advisers Anthony Fauci, have downplayed the importance of this decade’s old anti-malarial drug in the fight against Covid-19.

Dr Fauci, a senior adviser of Mr Trump in the fight against Covid-19, says the extensive use of this drug could cause shortages, leading to unnecessary deaths of patients with diseases like malaria, lupus and arthritis.

Dr Fauci says since the efficacy of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine has been proven for malaria, lupus and arthritis, it is better that health systems don’t use a lot of these drugs on the treatment of Covid-19, where there is no data to show the healing properties.

Nevertheless, amid these objections, the US Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency authorisation for the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of Covid-19.

With this emergency authorisation, the US is able to receive donations of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to be used in the treatment of Covid-19.
In addition to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, doctors are also trying out anti-retroviral therapy (ARVs) used in the treatment of HIV/Aids.

According to WHO, several studies suggest patients with Covid-19, and other coronaviruses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), have had good clinical outcomes when treated with ARVs.
“Almost all cases recover fully,” notes WHO.

WHO says the ARVs that have been used in the treatment of the different diseases caused by coronaviruses include lopinavir, which is sometimes used in combination with ritonavir.
WHO cautions against wholesome belief in the use of ARVs to treat diseases caused by coronaviruses.

The studies that have used ARVs are, according to WHO, are small and, therefore, not conclusive.
“The patients who received ARVs were also receiving other treatments, which could explain the positive outcomes,” says WHO.

There is also a Japanese flu drug that was used by Chinese medical officials in the treatment of Covid-19 patients.

According to Chinese officials, the drug known as favipiravir had been used on 340 patients in Wuhan and Shenzen and the results were promising. Zhang Xinimin, an official in China’s ministry of science and technology, said last month that patients who received this drug after testing positive for Covid-19 would be found to be negative after just four days.

The comparative number of days for people who got healed from Covid-19, without favipiravir was 11.
In addition to ARVs and the likes of chloroquine, other doctors have also tried out the use of blood byproducts taken from patients that have recovered from Covid-19.

Doctors are trying out either plasma or serum from former Covid-19 patients, who have recovered. It is believed that convalescent plasma and serum contain antibodies that will enable the recipient to fight off the disease, just like it was the case with the donor.

The use of convalescent blood byproducts has previously been used in the treatment of other viral diseases such as measles, polio and mumps. The likes of polio, measles and mumps now have vaccines. As a result, there have only been a few outbreaks in recent times which were caused by the refusal of some parents to vaccinate their children.

Just like smallpox, measles and polio, scientists believe that the most concrete way to stop the spread of Covid-19 is to find a vaccine, although there is a belief that therapies using existing drugs are the quickest way out of this pandemic.

The race for a vaccine

Seeking solution. So far, there are 35 institutions working on a vaccine. These include Boston based biotech firm Morderna, which started human clinical trials on March 16. In China, human clinical trials in Wuhan started in earnest a week ago.
Oxford University is also expected to start on human trials for a vaccine this month.

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation just announced two candidate vaccines for Covid-19. Both of these vaccines are to be tested on animals starting this month, so that the side effects are known before clinical trials on human beings can start. There are several other companies involved in attempts to come up with a vaccine, including German biopharmaceutical firm CureVac.

Curevac was involved in controversy after President Trump reportedly attempted to buy the German firm, for $1 billion so that the biopharmaceutical firm could develop a Covid-19 vaccine for just the US.

These are some of the many companies currently involved in finding a vaccine for Covid-19. While experts, like Dr Fauci, also the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said the earliest vaccine will be ready in a year, there is hope that this process can be expedited.

Factors that have been cited to explain the delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine faster than normal include China’s early efforts in sequencing the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19.

Other factors that have expedited the production of a vaccine include the fact that the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, is related to those that cause SARs and MERS. As a result, companies like Morderna built on work that had been done at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for MERS to create a vaccine that is now under clinical trial.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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