Written By: Hulkar Egamberdieva
With COVID-19 making its mark on history, as it spreads indiscriminately across the globe, it may be hard to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. The majority of the world’s population has been urged to stay home and self-isolate to ease the burden on the health care systems and prevent a collapse. While mainstream media and news outlets blast statistics at us, it is also important to look beyond the numbers and focus on the actions being taken. As these may be more obscure, this article will highlight the main efforts of research institutes, health-tech companies and pharmaceutical giants, which are happening behind the scenes. It will discuss the vaccines being designed, the key compounds being tested, technologies being used, as well as other innovations such as designing test kits and mobile apps; all in the fight against COVID-19 and the race to find a cure.
There has already been multiple collaborative research efforts established, one called the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator involving pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis.
GSK has responded by sharing their adjuvant technology with scientists. Adjuvants are added to vaccines to trigger a greater and more long-lasting immune response. As a result, this can reduce the concentration of the compound being used in the vaccine design and thus lower the required doses.
Novartis, on the other hand, is focusing on repurposing existing medicines and are currently donating 130 million doses of hydroxychloroquine (administered for some rheumatological and dermatological diseases), in support as it is labeled by the WHO as one of the potential treatments with antiviral properties against COVID-19.
Sanofi, not part of the same collaborative effort, is also working on this compound. They estimate to have a vaccine candidate available for in vitro testing within 6 months. If successful, it will enter clinical trials within a year and a half. Sanofi is also working together with Regeneron to enroll their drug ‘Kevzara’ (sarilumab) that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis into clinical trials immediately. The clinical programme has been initiated in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Russia, Canada and the US.
Another pharmaceutical giant, Johnson & Johnson, has announced that they will have a leading vaccine, along with two back-ups that will be ready for clinical trials in September 2020 with emergency use being made available in early 2021. They also promise making available 1 billion vaccines being supplied worldwide. They are leveraging Janssen’s ‘AdVac’ and ‘PERC6’ technology that in conjunction with each other produced rapid, high-yield, and cost-efficient vaccines and monoclonal antibodies against life-threating infections.
Besides the pharmaceutical industry, we have key players from the biotechnological industry. One of the most notable names is Moderna. Moderna’s core technology is based on mRNA technologies. As soon as Chinese authorities disclosed the genetic code of the novel coronavirus, Moderna focused all its coronavirus research onto COVID-19 specifically and within days they created a computer model of a vaccine; all without access to the physical virus itself. Its vaccine candidate is the first to reach clinical trials. The company is currently waiting for approval of Phase II trials and while the vaccine will not be commercially available for 12-18 months, it is possible that it may be used for emergencies in the autumn of this year.
mRNA technologies together with the repurposing of existing drugs is the approach taken by VECTOR a biotech company of the Institute of Virusology and Biotechnology in Russia. They are currently working on 18 potential vaccine candidates, and will present their successful candidate by June. Besides their efforts to produce a leading vaccine candidate, they have also developed test kits with high accuracy rates.
Test kits have also been evaluated by the UCSD, which promise to identify COVID-19 in patients in, as little as, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The University of California Health group is also recruiting participants for Phase II trials to investigate the efficacy of redmsivir. Redemsivir has been labeled as one of four promising therapies in treating COVID-19 according to the WHO.
Other contributors to the pandemic relief are manufacturing giants who are working on producing ventilators, medical equipment and antiseptic gels.
Last but not least, a few tech companies are investing in developing apps that monitor movement to track the virus in the general population. For example, MIT Media Lab, experts from Harvard University as well as software engineers from Facebook and Uber, designed an app called Private Kit: Safe Paths. The app allows people to trace their contacts or avoid people and areas that have been impacted by the coronavirus. This raises ethical concerns, which is why a safe approach has to be taken and lots of care has to be taken to prevent harming the population and community’s privacy.
A similar approach has been employed in Singapore, where a telehealth app called MaNaDr has been used by more than a million people. It is a virtual diagnostics platform that determines whether an individual’s symptoms are severe enough to be treated in hospital; only after which the doctor will order an ambulance to collect the person. This remote care monitoring system is essential today in order to reduce the overwhelming strain that frontline healthcare professionals are facing, which a lot of countries are battling today.
Overall, the abundance of information available to us with the current situation is truly staggering. With efforts being made from so many nations, institutes, private companies and scientists working around the clock, it is evident that a global work ethic has been established to fight the pandemic. Time is indeed of the essence, but it is also important to acknowledge that the safety of the aforementioned devices is of equal significance. That being said, although the data may not be conclusive just yet as the situation is constantly developing, we may see the first patients being administered new vaccines very soon.
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