[COVID-19 Report] The race to developing a vaccine for COVID-19
June 28, 2020 by Yerim Kim
How close are we to a cure?
It has been almost half a year since COVID-19 was first diagnosed and spread throughout the world in a global pandemic. In these times of uncertainty and panic, everyone is practicing social distancing and finding out ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, with more than 5 million confirmed cases and over 300,000 deaths worldwide, it has become important to develop a vaccine and find a cure for COVID-19. Scientists are exploring the use of existing drugs to cure COVID-19 and conducting clinical trials to investigate their efficacy. It’s important to screen for existing drugs, since it takes less time for clinical trials, as the benefits and risks of the drugs have already been studied. In addition, these drugs are already mass produced and available on the market, so it would be relatively easier to supply the drugs amid high global demand. On the other hand, developing a completely new drug can take more than a decade and over a million dollars in funding.
Currently, researchers are focusing on three key medications that have been approved for testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These drugs are chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir. These drugs have been approved to treat patients with COVID-19 despite their limited testing on the new coronavirus. Doctors and researchers are currently evaluating the safety and the dosage required to treat the different phases of COVID-19. Along with medication, experts have described preventive measures of COVID-19 in three phases: the initial stage of preventing infection, preventing the virus from replicating, and preventing the spread of the virus throughout the body.
Remdesivir is one drug that scientists are currently testing. This is an antiviral drug that was originally developed to treat Ebola. While Remdesivir clinical trials for Ebola ended in 2014, this drug was recently tested under the supervision of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The study concluded that patients administered with Remdesivir recovered faster than those who did not. However, another clinical trial showed that Remdesivir did not produce better results—and the recovery rate was the same as those who were not administered the drug. While the US FDA did approve of using this drug, more testing on Remdesivir will be required.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are antimalarial drugs that are currently being tested for its efficacy in treating COVID-19. The clinical results for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine use remain uncertain. There are several reports published by the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association that claim that these drugs neither benefit nor harm COVID-19 patients. Moreover, these drugs are also being used with other antiviral drugs to create a cocktail of drugs to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, some drug combinations can cause serious complications and side effects.
Scientists are also working to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. Vaccines are weakened forms of the pathogen that present the body with a marker, which can prepare the body against infections. Thus, vaccines target the acquired immune system. It’s important to develop a vaccine because it can educate the body by forming antibodies, which can be produced during an infection to kill the virus. Currently, there are over a hundred projects that are tackling the coronavirus. Moderna, a pharmaceutical company, developed an RNA vaccine that offers very promising results. In Moderna’s phase 1 trial, the patients injected with the vaccine produced antibodies at similar levels to those produced by recovered COVID-19 patients. The antibodies were able to neutralize the virus and prevent it from infecting the body cells. Despite the early stages of testing and the small number of patient samples, this vaccine still shows very good results. Moderna’s next task is to evaluate an effective dosage for a vaccine. The lower the dosage, the lower the risk of side effects and the greater the efficiency.
Experts still think that it will be another 14 to 18 months for a vaccine to be fully developed and approved, but these recent advances are encouraging.