With this series, we aim to remind our readers that while COVID-19 causes great sorrow and loss around the world, the resulting global emergency has also meant that scientists are working at an unprecedented pace. They are making progress that is easy to overlook among the worrying numbers of new cases and deaths.
Two recent MNT articles COVID-19: 5 reasons to be cautiously hopeful and COVID-19: Physical distancing, drug trials offer hope looked at the latest developments in potential treatments, vaccines, and the outcomes of infection control measures during the pandemic.
We continue our series with this third Special Feature, which continues to monitor progress in the areas mentioned above.
We focus on a vaccine that some researchers believe may be available by the fall and round up expert opinions on this promising development. We also cover an app-based social tracing system that could help create ‘intelligent’ physical distancing instead of national lockdowns.
Ebola drug continues to show promise
We previously reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) have launched a global megatrial that involves testing four potential treatments for COVID-19. Remdesivir, initially developed to treat Ebola, was one of those four potential treatments.
Now, scientists from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, say that remdesivir is showing promise in in vitro experiments.
The same team had previously demonstrated that remdesivir effectively combatted another coronavirus, MERS-CoV. It did so by blocking polymerases, which are enzymes that allow the virus to replicate.
Study co-author Prof. Matthias Götte explains, “If you target the polymerase, the virus cannot spread, so it’s a very logical target for treatment.”
He continues to report the results of the team’s new experiments: “We obtained almost identical results as we reported previously with MERS, so we see that remdesivir is a very potent inhibitor for coronavirus polymerases.”
Prof. Götte goes on to explain, “These coronavirus polymerases are sloppy, and they get fooled, so the inhibitor gets incorporated many times, and the virus can no longer replicate.”
Still, the author cautions, “We’ve got to be patient and wait for the results of the randomized clinical trials.”
New treatment target found
Another hopeful finding comes from researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. These scientists also started their research efforts by drawing parallels with other coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.
Namely, they looked at the spike protein that coronaviruses have and zoomed in further on the “fusion peptides” — these are short-chain amino acids that the spike proteins contain.
“What’s really interesting about SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, and this new virus, SARS-CoV-2, is this particular part of the protein, the fusion peptide, is almost exactly the same in those three viruses,” explains study co-author Prof. Susan Daniel.
The new study found that calcium ions enable fusion peptides to help coronaviruses penetrate healthy cells through a process called membrane fusion. This offers a potential target for a new antiviral treatment.
The team has already secured funding to start developing an antibody that could stop this process by targeting SARS-CoV-2’s fusion peptide.
A vaccine by the fall?
Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in the United Kingdom, and her team may soon be closing in on a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.
The approach “uses a harmless chimpanzee virus to carry the fragment of SARS-CoV-2 that is required for immunity,” explains Ian Jones, Professor of virology at the University of Reading, U.K.
Colin Butter, an associate professor of bioveterinary science at the University of Lincoln in the UK, explains: “Professor Gilbert’s team […] have made a recombinant vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus by taking a virus that is entirely harmless to humans, the Chimp Adenovirus designated ChAdOx1, and inserting into it the spike protein gene from the [new] coronavirus.”
Prof. Gilbert believes that the vaccine will be available for general use by the fall, which could prevent a potential second wave of the new coronavirus.