Exactly Where We Are with Vaccines and Treatments for COVID-19
- Scientists around the world are working on potential treatments and vaccines for the new coronavirus disease known as COVID-19.
- Several companies are working on antiviral drugs, some of which are already in use against other illnesses, to treat people who already have COVID-19.
- Other companies are working on vaccines that could be used as a preventive measure against the disease.
With confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide surpassing 2.7 million and continuing to grow, scientists are pushing forward with efforts to develop vaccines and treatments to slow the pandemic and lessen the disease’s damage.
Some of the earliest treatments will likely be drugs that are already approved for other conditions, or have been tested on other viruses.
Here’s a rundown of the latest COVID-19 vaccine and drug developments.
Antivirals target the virus in people who already have an infection. They work in different ways, sometimes Several companies are developing or testing antivirals against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
preventing the virus from replicating, other times blocking it from infecting cells.
Lee says antivirals work better if you administer them sooner, “before the virus has a chance to multiply significantly.”
And also before the virus has caused significant damage to the body, such as to the lungs or other tissues.
Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), says both antivirals and vaccines will be valuable tools in combating COVID-19.
However, he told Healthline that “antivirals are likely to be developed and approved before a vaccine, which typically takes longer.”
Drug development is sometimes described as a pipeline with compounds moving from early laboratory development to laboratory and animal testing to clinical trials in people.
It can take a decade or more for a new compound to go from initial discovery to the marketplace. Many compounds never even make it that far.
That’s why antivirals being eyed as treatments for COVID-19 are drugs that already exist.
While a lot of the focus is on developing new treatments for COVID-19, improvements in how doctors care for patients using existing technology are also crucial.
“The things that we have to worry about with the novel coronavirus is that it can cause pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome,” Lee said. “There are ways of treating those things that can reduce the effects, so doctors are trying to use those as well.”
No company has offered a timeline for when its drug might be used more widely to treat COVID-19. This isn’t an easy thing to estimate.
After laboratory and animal testing, drugs have to pass through several clinical trial stagesTrusted Source before they can be approved for widespread use in people.
It’s also difficult to speed things up, because scientists have to enroll enough people in each stage to have useful results. They also have to wait long enough to see whether there are harmful side effects of the drug.
However, drugs can sometimes be given to people outside a clinical trial through the FDA’s “compassionate useTrusted Source” program. For this to happen, people must have an “immediately life-threatening condition or serious disease or condition.”
Doctors at the University of California, Davis were able to secure this type of approval for a woman with severe COVID-19 to receive remdesivir. They report she’s now doing well.
Many will take this as a sign that the drug works. But because the drug was given outside of a clinical trial to just one person, it’s not possible to know for certain. Also, other people may not have the same response to the drug.
Clinical trial stages
- Phase I. The drug is given to a small number of healthy people and people with a disease to look for side effects and figure out the best dose.
- Phase II. The drug is given to several hundred people who have the disease, looking to see whether it works and if there are any side effects that weren’t caught during the initial testing.
- Phase III. In this large-scale trial, the drug is given to several hundred or even up to 3,000 people. A similar group of people take a placebo, or inactive compound. The trial is usually randomized and can take 1 to 4 years. This stage provides the best evidence of how the drug works and the most common side effects.
- Phase IV. Drugs that are approved for use undergo continued monitoring to make sure there are no other side effects, especially serious or long-term ones.
A vaccine is designed to protect people before they’re exposed to a virus — in this case, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
A vaccine basically trains the immune systemTrusted Source to recognize and attack the virus when it encounters it.
Vaccines protect both the person who’s vaccinated and the community. Viruses can’t infect people who are vaccinated, which means vaccinated people can’t pass the virus to others. This is known as herd immunity.
Many groupsTrusted Source are working on potential vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, with several backed by the nonprofit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
There are 120 projects around the world centered on the development of a vaccine. Five had been approved for clinical trials on people.
Here’s a look at some of the projects:
- In March, the company began testing its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine in a phase I clinical trial in Seattle, Washington. The study includes 45 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 55, who are getting two shots 28 days apart. The company has developed other mRNA vaccines before. Those earlier studies showed that their platform is safe, which allowed the company to skip certain animal testing for this specific vaccine.
- When COVID-19 appeared in December, the company had already been working on a DNA vaccine for MERS, which is caused by another coronavirus. This allowed the company to quickly develop a potential vaccine for SARS-Cov-2. Company officials said they expect to have all 40 volunteers signed up for their initial clinical trial by the end of April.
- University of Queensland in Australia. Researchers are developing a vaccine by growing viral proteins in cell cultures. They began preclinical testing stagesin early April.
- University of Oxford in England. A clinical trialwith more than 500 participants began in late April. Oxford officials said the potential vaccine has an 80 percent chance for success and could be available as early as September. The vaccine uses a modified virus to trigger the immune system.
- Pharmaceutical companies. Johnson & Johnsonand Sanofi are both working on a vaccine of their own. Pfizer has also teamed up with a German company to develop a vaccine. Their initial clinical trial with 200 participants was given the green light in late April.
Advances in genetic sequencing and other technological developments have sped up some of the earlier laboratory work for vaccine development.
However, Dr. Anthony FauciTrusted Source, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters in March that a vaccine won’t be available for widespread use for at least another 12 to 18 months.