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08 April 2020

By Dr Jacqueline Schmitt - Manager, Research Programs for PCFA

We are in the middle of global pandemic that has escalated very rapidly. The whole world has had to shift its focus to managing this disease. Medical professionals, scientists, biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical companies, government and non-government health bodies are all working together to fight this coronavirus outbreak.

In view of this global event, this week’s blog is on coronavirus.

What is a coronavirus?

A virus is a very small organic particle that contains genetic material. In order to replicate itself, the virus invades living cells and uses the metabolic processes of the cell to make new copies of itself. There are many different types of viruses. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause respiratory tract diseases in humans, animals and birds. The mildest forms of coronavirus are responsible for the common cold. More serious forms of these viruses were responsible for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2012.

Coronaviruses can change over time and new strains can arise. A new strain of coronavirus is responsible for the pandemic now sweeping the world. This disease has been named COVID-19, meaning coronavirus disease 2019. People are not immune to COVID-19, so anyone can catch the disease if they come into close contact with an infected person. In some people, the disease will cause few or no symptoms, but in others it can be more serious and even fatal.

How is COVID-19 treated?

Currently there is no specific treatment for COVID-19. Doctors will treat a person depending on the symptoms they have. Managing the severity of the symptoms gives the person’s immune system a better chance of fighting the virus. COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, which is why respirators are so important and lifesaving, they help people to keep breathing while their body fights the disease.

Developing new drugs to treat diseases takes a long time, so researchers are testing existing drugs used to treat other diseases like HIV, Malaria and multiple sclerosis. Currently, there are over 300 clinical trials all around the world studying ways to treat and prevent COVID-19. Finding a successful treatment is going to take dedication and global collaboration.

On March 18 this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a large international clinical trial called SOLIDARITY to study potential treatments for COVID-19. The study will initially test four drugs that have shown some effectiveness in treating COVID-19 or the related respiratory disease SARS and MERS. When other possible drug treatments are identified, they will be added to the trial. WHO have provided a simple procedure that hospitals can easily follow so as not to place more burden on hospital staff. More than 70 countries have already committed to take part in the trial.

Here in Australia, researchers at the University of Queensland are beginning clinical studies to determine if giving hydroxychloroquinine and an HIV drug alone or in combination to COVID-19 patients affects the severity and length of the disease. While in Victoria, researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute will conduct a trial giving hydroxychloroquinine to 2,250 health workers around Australia to determine if the drug prevents them from getting COVID19.       

Large clinical trials that are well planned and conducted are very important to ensure that a drug is safe and effective against COVID-19 before it can be used to treat infected people. 

What about a vaccine?

Vaccines are used to prevent a person from getting a disease. Vaccines to a virus may contain a weakened dose of the virus, the inactive virus or harmless molecules from the virus’s surface. When the vaccine is given to a person, their immune system recognises the foreign viral substance and develops antibodies against the virus. If the vaccinated person then comes into contact with the disease, their antibodies and immune system quickly respond to prevent them falling ill.

In the past it took years to develop and test a new vaccine before it could be made available to the community. Today research institutes, hospitals, biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical companies and health organisations around the globe are working together to speed up this process with the goal of developing a vaccine to COVID-19 within 12-18 months.

In Australia, CSIRO is working with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation to do pre-clinical trials on a number of vaccine candidates for COVID-19 that were identified by the University of Oxford and Inovio Pharmaceuticals. These important studies are being carried out the CSIRO’s state of the art  high containment biosecurity research facility in Geelong, Victoria.

In addition to work at CSIRO, scientists throughout Australia, at the Peter Doherty Institute, the University of Queensland, Australian National University among others are working together and with international collaborators to fast-track the development of a vaccine for COVID-19

Vaccines are generally specific for the disease they are developed for, but while we wait for a vaccine to COVID-19 researchers are testing other vaccines that may offer some immunity to the disease. 

There is limited evidence suggesting that the BCG vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis may offer some protection against other respiratory infections like COVID-19. But solid and reliable clinical evidence is needed to determine how effective it is against COVID-19 before it can be made available prompting researchers around the world to commence large clinical trials.

Here in Australia, researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute are leading a randomised, multi-centre clinical trial to recruit over 4000 healthcare workers to determine if the BCG vaccine gives them any protection against Covid-19. Until this study and others like it around the world are completed, we don’t know for certain if BCG offers any protection against COVID-19.

Australia has rigorous protocols in place for testing and regulating vaccines, with stringent monitoring of vaccine use and any side-effects. 

What can you do?

All of us have a role to play in helping to control Coronavirus.

Check out our fact sheets here, be aware of your individual risks, and always follow the advice of authorities.

We know that the current restrictions on everyday life are not easy, but remember that reckless actions don’t just hurt you, they could claim the life of someone you know or come into contact with.

We also know that isolation can be hard, especially for those of us who live on our own. If you need help today, please reach out. The fact sheets on our website includes a mental health factsheet with contact numbers you can call for someone to talk to.

If you’d like to make a difference, donate to medical research or click here to support PCFA nurses by becoming a Blue Hero. 

For a printable PDF version of this article, click here, or on the download link at the top of the article.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash