Scientists around the world are racing to find novel ways to treat, mitigate or prevent infection from the novel coronavirus.
The response has been especially rapid as the virus has spread unchecked across the globe. Still, any treatments are a long way from being proven both effective and safe, and most certainly won’t come in time to address the current pandemic.
According to some of the top infectious disease experts in the world, even on an accelerated timeline, a vaccine is still likely 12-18 months away — and then the challenge will be producing enough to make it readily available.
There is currently no drug therapy or vaccine approved anywhere in the world for COVID-19.
Here are the latest developments in the research.
Old drugs, new tricks
March 26: University of Manitoba researchers begin recruiting participants for a series of trials to test whether the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can reduce the symptoms and severity of COVID-19 and slow its spread.
The trial, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Minnesota, University of Alberta and McGill University Health Centre, will include participants who have tested positive for COVID-19, or who live with someone who has. Long-term use of hydroxychloroquine is known to cause cardiac and eye toxicity, but Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, an associate professor of internal medicine, said the short five-day trial should be “very safe.”
“The idea is to reduce the severity of symptoms,” said Zarychanski, a critical care doctor, “and also reduce the transmissibility of the virus and reduce community spread, which can help keep our population more healthy and reduce the burden that we’re expecting on the health care system.”
But experts, including Canada’s chief public health officer, warn that hydroxychloroquine can have serious side-effects. They also say there is a danger that hoarding the medication could hurt the many patients who take it for chronic inflammatory diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
March 25: New York’s Mount Sinai hospital begins treating critically ill COVID-19 patients via plasmapheresis, a century-old therapy that involves removing antibody-rich plasma from blood and returning it to a patient (the same or another) after either treating it or replacing it. In this case, doctors will transfer antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients into sick ones in the hopes the antibodies will neutralize the disease.
March 23: Researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute say they are recruiting up to 6,000 Quebecers over the age of 40 who test positive for the novel coronavirus to study whether colchicine, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat gout, Behçet’s disease and familial Mediterranean fever, is effective in treating respiratory complications of COVID-19, like lung inflammation, before patients need ventilators or die.
“It’s inexpensive, it’s widely available and the reason why we think it might very well work is that it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory agent,” Dr. Jean-Claude Tardif, the institute’s research director, said in an interview with CBC Montreal’s Daybreak.
Immunizing the herd
March 23: The Canadian government announces $275 million in funding for a number of Canadian research initiatives into vaccine development and testing. One of them is a Saskatoon lab that for four decades has been working on coronavirus vaccines primarily for animals, including successful vaccines for cattle and pigs.
March 17: China gives the go-ahead for researchers at the country’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences to begin human safety tests of an experimental coronavirus vaccine.
March 16: Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle begin a first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine when they administer the first shot to a volunteer patient.