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Coronavirus: where do we stand in the race for a vaccine?

Vials displayed during a neutralising antibody test on the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus at a laboratory at the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) in Seoul, March 11, 2020.
Vials displayed during a neutralising antibody test on the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus at a laboratory at the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) in Seoul, March 11, 2020. AFP - ED JONES

As the world races to find a vaccine or a cure for the coronavirus, antimalarial drugs, HIV medications, flu vaccines and arthritis treatments are all being tested. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the latest medical efforts to combat the pandemic. 

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Teams of scientists across the world are working around the clock to either develop a new drug or repurpose an existing medication to halt the spread of the virus.

Viruses are tiny parasitic bits of genetic material that replicate inside another organism. Vaccines for viruses such as measles are typically made from a weakened form of the virus. But this process can take years.

Scientists are now fast-tracking results and sidestepping normal scientific steps, such as animal testing, to find drugs that will treat and kill the virus that causes COVID-19.

How close are we to a vaccine?

China:

The first country to experience the virus and also the first to start searching for vaccines and cures, China is understandably leading the field in the hunt for a vaccine. On December 31 last year, China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a port city of 11 million people in Hubei province. The virus was at that point unknown.

To create an original vaccine, the Chinese company Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology is working with a US biotech company called Inovio Pharmaceuticals. They are in the process of developing a “DNA vaccine” called INO-4800. 

This vaccine is already in preclinical trial. It involves directly injecting genetic material into a person to trigger a stronger immune response, so they are better equipped to stop an infection.

Japan:

On January 16, Japan became the first country to confirm a coronavirus case outside China.

Fujifilm may be best known for its photographic products, but the Japanese company also makes a drug called Favipiravir (capitalized). This was initially intended to treat new strains of the flu. However, it appears to be proving effective in treating coronavirus patients, particularly those with lighter symptoms.

Europe:

Germany’s BioNTech has been one of the major players in European vaccine developments. It announced on Monday that it is developing an experimental vaccine, working with Fosun Pharma in China. On Tuesday, it confirmed a collaboration with America’s largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, to develop the drug outside of China. They hope to be in a position to start testing the new vaccine early next month.

Reuters reported on Sunday that the German government was trying to stop the US administration from persuading CureVac, another German drugmaker working on an experimental vaccine for the coronavirus, to move its research to the United States. This prompted German politicians to insist that no country should have a monopoly on any future vaccine.

Earlier, the Welt am Sonntag German newspaper reported that US President Donald Trump had offered funds to lure CureVac to the United States, and the German government was making counter-offers to tempt it to stay.

Responding to the report, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote on Twitter: “The Welt story was wrong.”

US:

The first human trials of a potential vaccine called mRNA-1273 have already begun in the United States. Their vaccine has been made by biotechnology company Moderna Therapeutics.

Four patients received injections of the vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente research facility in Seattle, Washington, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The early-stage study of mRNA-1273 is being carried out by the US National Institutes of Health.

Instead of creating the mRNA-1273 vaccine from the coronavirus, scientists have copied a short segment of genetic code from the virus.

To test this new drug as fast as possible, they have sidestepped normal procedures such as initially testing on animals. The initial trial is expected to involve 45 healthy adult volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 years over approximately six weeks. It could take 12 months before any concrete results are produced.

How close are we to a cure?

China:

By the end of January, China was already exploring how existing drugs might be repurposed to kill the virus.

One of the first drugs China explored with some success was an antimalarial drug called chloroquine phosphate. Speaking at a press conference on February 18, Sun Yanrong, deputy head of the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development at the ministry of science and technology, said this drug has already been under clinical trial in more than 10 hospitals in Beijing as well as in Guangdong Province and in Hunan Province.

According to Sun, patients treated with chloroquine saw a greater drop in fever, an improvement in their lung scans and required a shorter time to recover compared to parallel groups.

Among other drugs currently being tested in China is a Swiss-made anti-inflammation drug called Tocilizumab that suppresses overreactions by the immune system.  

Another interesting advance has been made with a US antiviral drug called remdesivir, which has had impressive results in tests with more than 200 extremely ill patients.

Remdesivir was developed by Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola patients. It had good results in laboratories and with animals but was less successful with tests out in the field. Nevertheless, global health authorities deem it the most promising of possible treatments for people with severe cases of the virus.

Europe:

French pharmaceutical company Sanofi has announced it is ready to offer millions of doses of an antimalarial drug to French authorities after "promising" initial trials.

Sanofi said it could potentially treat 300,000 COVID-19 patients with the antimalarial drug Plaquenil, a spokesperson for the laboratory told AFP, adding that the group was ready to work with French health authorities “to confirm these results”.

Sanofi and its partner Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc have also started a clinical trial of their rheumatoid arthritis drug Kevzara as a treatment for the virus, the companies said on Monday.

Testing for patients with mid-to-severe stages of the virus will begin immediately, and the companies anticipate the trial will test up to 400 patients.

United States:

The United States may have had a slow start, but it has now sprinted ahead in the race for a vaccine.

A key development in the battle against the virus has emerged from the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Coronavirus Research Group, based out of the University of California. This team of hundreds of scientists has identified more than 50 drugs already in circulation that may effectively treat people infected with the virus.

The group has taken a different approach from many of their peers. Rather than find drugs that attack the virus itself, they are exploring drugs that will protect the proteins in our own cells that the coronavirus depends on to thrive and reproduce. With this type of treatment, our own systems will fight the virus.

Such a project would typically take a minimum of two years to achieve the results that this working group, which includes 22 laboratories across the US, has managed in a few weeks.

Another major development is the use of the HIV combination treatment lopinavir-ritonavari. This is currently being used in trials in America and other countries across the world, including India.

However, amid all the scientific developments, there are also unfounded rumours. In a statement published on Monday, Johnson & Johnson said there is “no evidence” that its HIV drug Prezista had any effect against the coronavirus in response to unsubstantiated reports that the drug might be a cure.

The company said it was aware that some HIV treatments are being considered as options to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

Johnson & Johnson did say, however, that it was “partnering with multiple organizations to support the development of research programs and fast-track solutions for COVID-19”.

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