Amid Rising COVID-19 Infection Numbers, A Race for the Cure Is On the Way

Friday, March 20, 2020

The world, now more than ever, needs inventive and creative minds and international co-operation crossing borders to address the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With COVID-19 pneumonia, caused by SARS-CoV-2, having more than 237,000 confirmed cases and deaths at almost 10,000 worldwide (as of 3/19/2020), the race to find working drug therapies and to create a safe and effective vaccine has reached turbo speed. While under normal circumstances, bringing a vaccine from design to market generally takes more than a decade, everyone is hoping for a scientific miracle to be born within a few months.

At least 35 companies and academic institutions worldwide are currently working on creating a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Many have a jumpstart because of COVID-19’s similarity to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2003. Researchers began development of vaccines during the 2003 SARS epidemic but tabled the process once the outbreak was contained. SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)’s genetic sequence has been discovered to be very similar to the 2003 SARS such that research can build on and tweak the SARS investigational vaccines to respond to the new pandemic.

Companies Developing SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Vaccine:

Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotech firm, is the first company to start human trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. They began on March 16th, 2020 with a 45-person cohort at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, Washington. The vaccine—mRNA-1273—uses mRNA genetic material, a vaccine production method that does not need the virus itself and thus can be produced quicker than traditional vaccines. Moderna has used the method in multiple other investigational vaccines but has not yet received regulatory approval for any of those vaccines. 

China’s CanSino Bio is right on Moderna’s heels and will likely begin trials for Ad5-nCoV in Wuhan, China, within the week. The vaccine uses the company’s adenovirus-based viral vector vaccine platform, which the company also used to create a vaccine for the 2014 Ebola epidemic.  

Researchers are also racing to develop drugs that can be used to treat the disease without vaccinating against it. And the process for approval of these therapies is significantly faster than for vaccines.

Possible SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Treatment:

Avigan

Developed by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical in 2014, Avigan was created to treat influenza. But COVID-19 patients in Shenzhen and Wuhan, China, who received the medication in recent clinical trials experienced encouraging improvements. Those who received the medication got a negative COVID-19 test seven days earlier than those who did not take the medication and showed significant improvement in lung condition on X-rays.

Nafamostat

Researchers at the University of Tokyo plan to begin clinical trials soon for using a blood thinner in coronavirus patients. Already approved in Japan to treat pancreatitis and other kidney disorders, Nafamostat is an enzyme inhibitor that is used to prevent blood clots. Researchers are hoping that the same mechanism could suppress the protein that the coronavirus needs to enter human cells. Clinical trials are set to begin within a month.

Plasma-Derived Therapy

Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda Pharmaceutical Inc. is developing a plasma-derived therapy that uses the plasma of people who have recovered from the COVID-19 pneumonia to increase antibodies in sick patients. The process is one Takeda uses in other immunoglobin products and already has broad regulatory approval for, including from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The question for this new therapy is whether the concentration of antibodies is sufficient to fight the novel coronavirus. China National Biotec Group began using a plasma-derived therapy on February 8, 2020 and claims that patients with the novel coronavirus are seeing improvements within 24 hours.

Remdesivir

The first U.S. clinical trials of experimental treatments for COVID-19 began on February 25, 2020 in Nebraska, testing an antiviral treatment called Remdesivir. The drug was developed by Gilead Sciences Inc. and has had promising results in animal models for treating MERS and SARS.

Kaletra

Marketed by AbbVie Inc., the HIV pill that combines lopinavir and ritonavir has been experimentally administered to patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. According to a recent study, the drug did not improve symptoms for severe COVID-19 patients as hoped. It also didn’t reduce the rate of death in a controlled, randomized trial of the 199 patients.

There are numerous other drug therapies in development all around the world. While the pandemic is spreading at an unprecedented rate, partially due to globalization, the same globalization is contributing to sharing of vital data and findings which may speed up finding the cure and bringing people from all around the globe together to solve the common crisis.