In a furious race against time, scientists around the globe have identified promising new ways to test and treat COVID-19, discoveries that eventually could help slow the contagion’s spread and make it less deadly.
But sorting out which drugs work will take time, with a vaccine still more than a year away.
These were some of the messages from an international summit Monday of leading researchers. Co-organized by a virologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, the meeting highlighted the frantic pace of scientists as they try to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, more than 415,00 people around the world have contracted the new coronavirus, with 51,000 cases in the United States, after only China and Italy, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
While cases in China are on the decline, the United States has seen exponential growth in recent days, prompting an official with the World Health Organization to predict the United States could soon be the disease’s epicenter. South Carolina also has seen a dramatic rise in the past week as more people here get tested, with more than 340 people so far testing positive and seven deaths.
Amid this grim news, top researchers met on a video link Monday to discuss their latest advances, a global summit organized by Mike Schmidt, a professor of immunology and microbiology at MUSC, and the American Society for Microbiology.
“There are new medicines in the pipeline, and we’re learning more each day,” Schmidt said after the conference, adding that the findings filled him with “wonder, excitement and hope.”
A safe and effective vaccine will be the most powerful weapon against the coronavirus, and researchers are studying at least 35 vaccine candidates, said Paul Duprex, director of vaccine research at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the summit’s participants.
But a vaccine is at least a year away, he said.
“So the takeaway is that a vaccine is necessary but won’t be available in the near future.”
In the meantime, scientists are racing to identify medicines new and old that might make the disease less miserable and deadly.
One promising candidate is a drug called remdesivir, said Vineet Menachery, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of Texas.
When remdesivir makes contact with the virus, it puts a cap on parts that allow the microbe to replicate, stopping its spread.
So far, remdesivir has shown potential in animal studies against Ebola and the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS.
“I’d argue that this is the most promising drug at the time,” Menachery said during a conference briefing Tuesday.
But remdesivir also comes with a major limitation: It’s administered intravenously, which means it must be given in a hospital, he said.
Another promising candidate can be taken orally, he said.
Like remdesivir, it’s an antiviral compound that stops viruses from replicating. Called NHC/EIDD-2801, it’s being tested by a team at Emory University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
So far, the drug has shown effectiveness in animals against similar coronaviruses, such as SARS, MERS.
While these drugs short-circuit the virus’s ability to replicate, other treatments could boost the immune system and speed a patient’s recovery.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins are using blood from people who have recovered from the coronavirus — patients who have developed antibodies to the disease.
Researchers believe that giving new patients this antibody-infused blood could help them heal faster.
The summit’s panelists also discussed the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and a common antibiotic azithromycin. New York officials already have acquired 750,000 doses of chloroquine and 10,000 doses of azithromycin for a clinical trial.
As some researchers search for better medicines, others are rushing to create faster tests, including blood antibody tests that tell you whether you’ve been exposed.
Right now, the main test is called PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction.
PCR tests work by identifying genetic materials in a virus. But the slow rollout of PCR tests in the United States cloaked both the pace and extent of the disease's spread. In South Carolina, wider testing ramped up just a week ago.
Blood tests typically are faster and less expensive than PCR. They detect whether a patient has developed antibodies — evidence of exposure.
Widespread use of these antibody tests could help public officials better manage an epidemic, said Stefano Bertuzzi, chief executive officer of the American Society for Microbiology.
If you can identify those who have recovered, you can "deploy those fractions of the population back into social life while others, who are symptomatic, can self-isolate,” he said.
Widespread testing also would “give a true case fatality rate,” added Schmidt of MUSC.
But it’s unclear how quickly public health officials and private labs can deploy these blood antibody tests. Scientists and laboratories are still gathering the required materials to do these kinds of tests, Schmidt said.
“We don’t have a timeline," added Robin Patel, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. "But it will be faster than a vaccine.”
In the meantime, the number of COVID-19 cases grows by the day, adding a profound urgency to their work, members of the summit said. Bertuzzi is from Italy and said he’s lost dear friends from the disease.
“It’s not just about statistics," he said. "It’s about human lives, with a first name and last name. It’s really personal for so many people around the world.”