Ask an Expert: How Close Are We to Effective Treatments for COVID-19?
There have been some promising early signs that we’re closer to solutions than we thought.
There’s no magic wand — yet — to beat COVID-19. That will most likely come when a vaccine is developed, which may still be over a year away.
In the meantime, our best bet to stop the spread is large-scale testing, and rapidly responding to positive cases so those afflicted do not pass it on. But while diagnostics are vital to stopping the pandemic, testing doesn't tackle the virus itself head on, and it doesn’t help those with severe symptoms.
That leaves one path left to reduce death rates and establish a new normal that more closely resembles the old: treatments. But where are all the drugs — and why haven’t we seen any yet?
Although the World Health Organization has confirmed that there are currently no licensed drugs out there for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19, there are over 3,000 registered studies already attempting to redress the balance.
There are three specific types of medication that might help, according to the Wellcome Trust, an independent scientific research foundation: antivirals that stop the virus from multiplying while inside you; anti-inflammatory drugs that keep the immune system calm; and antibody treatments to attack the virus directly.
But there’s a few issues. It can take years to develop antivirals for a specific virus, so right now tests are underway to see if medicines that work for other viruses, like Ebola or HIV, have any effect on COVID-19. Although there have been promising signs, clinical trials are still needed.
And there’s only one place you can find the right antibodies: in the blood of those who have recovered from the coronavirus. It’s possible to extract them and manufacture them at scale, but those working on this aren’t yet close to clinical studies.
So what’s the surest solution? Time is of the essence, which means working with what we already have — drugs that have already been licensed for other ailments and that might work on COVID-19.
But equity is vitally important too: as effective treatments become available, it’s essential that they’re available equally to everyone, everywhere. Our Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign aims to achieve just that — calling on world leaders, corporations, and philanthropists to help fund COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines and strengthen our health care systems globally so no one is left behind in this pandemic. You can take action to support the campaign here.
So what treatments, if any, might give us some hope for the future? And how might we be able to make them equally accessible to the world’s most marginalized communities? We spoke to Dr. Nick Cammack, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator lead at the Wellcome Trust to find out.
How can COVID-19 treatments help us get back to something resembling normality?
Coronavirus is likely to be a health threat for a long time. To truly get back to normality, we need tests, treatments, and vaccines that are affordable and available to everyone, everywhere.
Treatments are a crucial part of the equation and we need to boldly invest in a range of potential options now.
Finding safe, effective coronavirus treatments could prevent infections, save lives, protect public health, and help us get ahead of this pandemic. Those treatments must then be available to everyone who needs them, everywhere in the world, regardless of their ability to pay.
Which COVID-19 treatments look most promising right now across antivirals, anti-inflammatories, and antibodies?
There has been a recent breakthrough through a large-scale randomised controlled study called RECOVERY (Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy).
That breakthrough was Dexamethasone — an anti-inflammatory that’s the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for COVID-19. It could potentially prevent one death in every eight ventilated patients, and because it is highly affordable, easy to make, and only needs a small dosage, it could be scaled up quickly for everyone who needs it, everywhere.
Monoclonal antibodies are another option that looks promising. Lab studies have shown that monoclonal antibodies [essentially lab produced molecules that can mimic how your immune system defends you against virus’] are effective in preventing the virus infecting cells.
Phase one studies have begun to help understand how safe they are, and we should have that data shortly.
Antiviral drugs work by preventing a virus from multiplying inside the body.— Wellcome (@wellcometrust) June 12, 2020
It can take years to develop new antivirals. So could existing drugs help treat #COVID19?
How far away might we be from an effective treatment?
The news about Dexamethasone is extremely promising and a significant step forward in finding an effective treatment, but we still have a long way to go.
We need to do more research on all potential options, including treatments that can keep people out of hospitals.
What’s the best way to ensure equitable access for these treatments when approved?
Global collaboration from the outset is the best way to ensure equitable access for approved treatments. This collaboration starts by ensuring clinical trials take place across the world, to make sure treatments work for everyone, everywhere.
Governments, industry, and philanthropy must pool resources to pay for the risk, the research, manufacturing, and distribution to ensure everyone has access to treatments. National governments must work together to ensure that any potential coronavirus treatments can be manufactured in as many countries as possible and distributed globally to everyone who needs them.
The ACT [Access to COVID-19 Tools] Accelerator was recently launched to promote this type of global collaboration. Through this collaboration, the World Health Organization, governments, and international health bodies have pledged to make sure that any tools developed to fight the current pandemic — vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments — will be distributed equitably to everyone who needs them.
Join the movement to help combat COVID-19 by taking action here to support the Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign, urge world leaders to fund the response effort, and mitigate the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on the world's most vulnerable people. For more information on COVID-19, the efforts to combat it, and how it impacts people around the world, read our coverage of the pandemic here.