Coronavirus Vaccine & Treatment Research Is Already Underway
This post is updated regularly to reflect the latest news and science around coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
Characterized by fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has so far infected over 125,000 people globally and resulted in over 4,600 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of March 12. On March 11, the WHO officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, meaning the disease is spreading worldwide. All eyes are on researchers to develop a coronavirus vaccine or treatment as soon as possible. While scientists aren't there yet, research for developing a coronavirus vaccine and treatment is fortunately well underway.
“The research and efforts to find a treatment for the COVID-19 are moving faster than any I’ve seen before,” Karla Satchell, PhD, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Bustle via email. “More than likely a treatment will come from previous drug development for SARS, which puts us ahead of the game than if we had to start from the beginning." Satchell adds that this treatment will have to be carefully vetted and tested before it's issued to the public. "A realistic timeline for a treatment is 18 months.” Satchell, as the director of the Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases, is currently leading a team of scientists investigating the structure of the virus, with the goal of figuring out how to stop it from replicating.
Though research into vaccines is well underway, One Medical’s Will Kimbrough, MD, Senior Medical Director of Clinical Services and National Virtual Medical Director says that it's too early to know how effective they'll be, or how long it'll take to become available.
What Treatments For Coronavirus Are Being Researched?
According to the journal Nature, researchers are trying to adapt drugs that treat HIV and Ebola to help treat coronavirus. In January, China began treating coronavirus patients with an HIV-fighting cocktail to help slow the virus's replication. The same type of drug repurposing has been used with some success when treating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses, which are also in the coronavirus family.
The pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences is preparing to conduct human trials throughout Asia on a potential treatment, called remdesivir. According to Gilead, this drug is an intravenous treatment meant to reduce fever and help patients with severe symptoms recover faster. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general at the World Health Organization, said in a press conference in late February that remdesivir is the only drug currently being used effectively against coronavirus, CNN reports.
CDC director Robert Redfield told the U.S. House of Representatives on March 10 that remdesivir is "available right now on compassionate use" in Washington state, Fortune reports. The FDA defines compassionate use as a way to expand immediate access to treatments for people in potentially life-threatening situations before they drugs or procedures have gone through full approval processes. In this situation, remdesivir's effectiveness won't become clear for a few months, but its use in Washington — where 905 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded as of March 17 — marks the beginning of potential widespread treatment.
CNBC reported on March 17 that the biotech company Regeneron has been testing potential COVID-19 treatments. Using antibodies from genetically-engineered mice and humans who have recovered from COVID-19, Regeneron is attempting to make a drug cocktail to prevent coronavirus infection. If all goes well, CNBC reports that human clinical trials may begin as early as this summer.
Clinical trials already underway in Wuhan and Shenzhen are proving to be effective at treating COVID-19 thus far, The Guardian reported on March 18. The clinical trial involved using favipiravir, a flu drug used in Japan, to treat 340 patients tested positive for coronavirus. The drug helped people with coronavirus recover in four days as opposed to the average 11 days of people who didn't receive the treatment. Health officials report that this drug seems less effective for people with more severe symptoms. Chinese doctors have used an anti-inflammation drug called tocilizumab to successfully ease the symptoms of patients with severe cases, NBC News reported on March 17.
What Research Is Being Conducted On A Coronavirus Vaccine?
In late February, the U.S.-based biotech company Moderna sent its first batch of a potential coronavirus vaccine to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The first dose of Moderna's potential coronavirus vaccine was administered to a trial participant in Seattle on March 16. Over the next six weeks, 45 healthy adults will receive two injections each to test the safety of the potential COVID-19 vaccine. This human trial is beginning earlier than expected, but experts tell AP that it will take at least 12 months of further tests to make sure the potential vaccine is safe and effective. Still, this process is actually fairly quick, given that it usually takes scientists between two and four years to complete the exploratory stages of vaccine development, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
MarketWatch reports that the pharmaceutical company Inovio is also expecting to start human trials for a potential coronavirus vaccine in April. The company hopes to publish the results of their U.S.-based, 30-person clinical trial by the fall, estimating that 1 million vaccine doses could be available by the end of the year.
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) will follow suit with human clinical trials beginning in early November, CNBC reported on March 18. Basing their research on a current vaccine for Ebola, J&J is aiming to have their COVID-19 vaccine widely available in early 2021, CNBC reports.
What Is The White House Saying About Coronavirus Testing And Treatment?
After meeting with Republican Senators on March 10, President Trump stated that whoever needs to be tested for coronavirus in the U.S. can get one. "When people need a test, they can get a test," Trump told the media, despite CDC Director Robert Redfield telling Politico that U.S. labs simply do not have adequate supplies needed to perform widespread coronavirus tests.
MSNBC reported on March 11 that Trump insists that coronavirus simply "will go away." In addition to downplaying the impacts of the virus, the President is also using coronavirus to promote xenophobic and racist policies. The Guardian reports that at a rally in South Carolina at the end of February, Trump told the crowd that, "The Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans. Now, you see it with the coronavirus." Trump continued this false rhetoric about coronavirus on March 13, when he tweeted that opening the U.S. Mexico border would make COVID-19 worse in the U.S. (Mexico only has 11 confirmed cases, whereas the U.S. has over 1,000).
Redfield testified to the House of Representatives in March that increasing barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border will do nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19, The Guardian reports. In fact, Mexico has only had six cases of coronavirus as of March 6, whereas over 1,000 cases have been recorded in the United States.
What Will Happen When A Coronavirus Treatment Or Vaccine Becomes Available?
Politico reports that House and Senate leaders are currently grappling over the financial cost of making sure that vaccines and telehealth care will be affordable and accessible for people without insurance. On February 26, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that the federal government wouldn't guarantee that coronavirus vaccines would be affordable. According to Forbes, Azar said that "we need the private sector to invest" in a vaccine, despite the White House requesting the allocation of $2.5 billion in federal dollars to combat the virus.
"Vaccines should be affordable. It’s just as simple as that," Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic Representative from Connecticut told Politico. As with the potential vaccines, it is unclear how affordable potential coronavirus treatments would be. According to a March 12 report by MarketWatch, Vice President Pence said that private health insurance companies will waive co-pays for coronavirus treatments.
If you're concerned about treatment, vaccines, or both, stay tuned to the CDC's updates about what's being developed. Just as important, though, is the political conversation about who will be able to access coronavirus-related care once it becomes available.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.
Karla Satchell, PhD, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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