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Coronavirus

Fighting back against COVID-19: treatments and vaccines in development

In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020 file photo, a technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island. A series of missteps at the nation's top public health agency caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, hobbling the federal response as the pandemic spread across the country like wildfire, an Associated Press review found.
In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020 file photo, a technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island. A series of missteps at the nation's top public health agency caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, hobbling the federal response as the pandemic spread across the country like wildfire, an Associated Press review found.

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By now many people know there’s no proven treatment and no vaccine to treat COVID-19 – yet.

Basically this particular coronavirus is too new and experts are still gathering information about the virus itself and the way it behaves in humans.

For instance, just last Wednesday, the World Health Organization advised against the use of ibuprofen to treat symptoms of COVID-19, only to reverse that decision the next day because not enough information was available to advise against using it.

Now for some good news.

Because even as the death toll and confirmed cases rise in many places around the world, experts are working to develop treatments and vaccines.

Here’s a quick glance at some of them.

What’s new

News outlets recently reported that losing one’s sense of smell (anosmia) or having reduction in one’s ability to smell (hyposmia)  and taste (ageusia) could be early signs of COVID-19.

In fact the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery recommended that these symptoms be added to “be added to the list of screening tools for possible COVID-19 infection” and that people with these symptoms self-isolate and be tested.

In a media teleconference on March 18, Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of PhRMA, said researchers are not only working on a vaccine, they are also looking at a variety of approved therapies to see if they could be useful in the treatment of COVID-19.

Also recent news reports discuss the possibility of treating COVID-19 patients with chloroquine (a treatment for malaria) or hydroxychloroquine (a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and porphyria cutanea tarda.) either alone or in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin, which may yield better control.

The Centers for Disease Control said a number of countries, including the U.S., have treated hospitalized COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine.

But for now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved these medicines as treatment for COVID-19. There's good reasons for that.

One caution with these drugs, especially in combination, is that both cause long QT syndrome, a type of heart arrhythmia. That risk increases when using two medicines with this same side effect.

Also the optimal dosages and length of treatment for use in COVID-29 is yet unknown.

But the these drugs are not the only combinations of medicine being studied.

Gilead Sciences, which is based in California, has six ongoing studies regarding the use of its investigational drug remdesivir, which may work against certain viruses.

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited, a global company, is working on on a plasma-derived therapy (TAK-888) for the treatment of COVID-19, according to a news release from the company.

Basically, this therapy would transfer antibodies from a recovered a patient to a high-risk patient or those currently battling the disease.

Because the procedure for isolating plasma is already in place, moving into testing was able to happen quickly, Julie Kim, president of Takeda, said in the media conference.

The company is also looking at its other therapies and products to see if any of them might be appropriate for patients with the virus.

What’s in the works

Sanofi Pasteur is collaborating with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), to see “if previous development work for a SARS vaccine” might be useful in developing a vaccine for COVID-19, a news release from Sanofi, said.

And AbCellera of British Columbia and Eli Lilly and Company in Indiana are working together to develop antibody products to help treat and prevent COVID-19, according to its news release.

This underscores what Dr. Mikael Dolsten, chief scientific officer and president, worldwide research, development and medical at Pfizer, said at that media conference.

Dolsten said the solution to finding an effective vaccines and treatments will require cooperation between teams of scientists and other experts.

“One company, one vaccine and one medicine cannot be an effective solution,” Dolsten said.

To that end, Pfizer, which is headquartered in New York, has partnered with the German company BioNTech to work on co-developing and co-distributing “a potential mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection,” according to a news release from Pfizer.

Moderna is also working on an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19; clinical trials began last week.

A messenger RNA vaccine won’t contain any of the virus; rather it instructs a “patient’s own cells to produce proteins that could prevent, treat, or cure disease,” the website for Moderna, a company based in Massachusetts, said.

Why does it take so long?

Ubl said the immune system is “incredibly complex,” which makes it challenging to predict how each person’s immune system might respond to a vaccine.

This is the reason for running large clinical trials before a vaccine is release, he said.

And yet, with COVID-19, the first clinical trials began just last week. How can that be?

Ubl said each time a vaccine is created, experts gain more knowledge. That knowledge is put to use for the next vaccine, which may shorten the time required to decode a new virus and develop a vaccine for it, Ubl added.

During the media conference, Dr. Thomas Brewer, senior vice president and chief medical officer of GSK Vaccines, expressed hope that, because of this knowledge and cooperation, a vaccine will be available in the next 12 to 18 months.

“If everyone works together,” Brewer said.

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