Racing for a cure: where are we with COVID-19 vaccines and treatments?


SARS-Corona virus 2 (SARS-CoV2), the cause of COVID-19, is the infection that the world is now trying to overcome. Respiratory disease has arguably caused the most serious global crisis since the Second World War, infecting more than a million people and causing more than 70,000 deaths.

As the world grapples with the pandemic, the scientific community is looking for effective and progressive treatments, while developing a safe and tested vaccine.

The race to find a vaccine

It usually takes 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine.

“For Ebola, we’ve done it in five years, I know we can speed it up,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of the Global Health Partnership GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization).

Very unusually, human trials with an experimental COVID-19 vaccine have already started. Seattle resident Jennifer Haller became the first person to receive one on March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in her hometown.

She was one of a group of volunteers who participated in human tests just weeks after the rapid spread epidemic.

This experimental vaccine, officially called mRNA-1273, was developed by the National Institutes of Health and the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. There is no risk of infection in volunteers because the injections do not contain the coronavirus itself.

The World Health Organization says there are more than 40 potential vaccines. Up to a hundred are said to be in development, although only a handful are still clinically tested.

The promise of RNA vaccines

A promising way to combat COVID-19 seems to be the use of a vaccine that manipulates part of the virus known as RNA.

“The RNA molecule carries all the genetic information of the coronavirus,” explains Marie-Paule Kieny, director of research at INSERM. “RNA can be synthesized on a large scale in the laboratory. This is why it is used in this first vaccine, for which clinical trials are underway.

“Other vaccines are based on viral DNA, or other viruses that have been weakened, that do not produce disease, and in which we can include genetic information from the COVID virus. “

There are more than 30 companies and academic institutions around the world who are trying different approaches to find the silver bullet that will beat COVID-19.

The Trump-Curevac controversy

In Germany, biopharmaceutical company Curevac is using the so-called messenger molecule – mRNA – in a vaccine that it says will be ready for clinical testing in June.

As Curevac spokesperson Thorsten Schüller explains:

“We use mRNA to ask the body to produce its own vaccine, so we only put information into the body. It’s a totally new approach in medicine. “

Curevac hit the headlines when it was announced that US President Donald Trump had offered the company a billion dollars to secure the vaccine exclusively for the United States. But Schüller insists that the company has never received such an offer from the White House or any other American institution:

“Our goal is to develop a vaccine for everyone, all over the world. Next, health care professionals must decide how to distribute such a vaccine. ”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has since offered CureVac € 80 million in research funding to help develop a vaccine.

Controversial treatments

As the world waits for a vaccine, millions of patients will likely need treatment. Researchers and doctors have started testing sometimes controversial combinations of existing drugs to treat infected people, but so far there is no cure.

In France, the Marseille University Hospital Institute has proposed testing and treating people with COVID-19 symptoms. Didier Raoult, head of the institute’s infectious diseases department, believes that a cheap and easy-to-produce antimalarial can treat COVID-19. Raoult announced promising results in late February on a small sample of patients using chloroquine and its related compound Hydroxy Chloroquine.

But Marie-Paule Kieny is one of the many skeptics in the scientific community:

“I know there has been a lot of discussion, in France and elsewhere, about the claims of some researchers who say that this drug works, that this drug will save the world. But unfortunately, at the moment, the evidence that this hydroxychloroquine drug is effective is extremely weak, if not non-existent.

On the other side of the border in Italy, doctors at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan use the same combination of drugs suggested by Professor Raoult.

Fabio Ciceri, deputy director of San Raffaele explains that there are no nationally approved protocols and that each hospital can choose its strategy:

AIFA, the Italian Medicines Agency, has given us instructions on the rational use of medicines. The medicines we use are therefore existing medicines, intended to be used against the coronavirus, on the basis of laboratory results which demonstrate their potential for effectiveness. “

Warnings not observed

Some believe that the current pandemic could have been avoided, or at least much better prepared.

After all, there have already been outbreaks of coronaviruses, starting with SARS in 2003.

In 2015, software developer and philanthropist Bill Gates gave a Ted Talk in which, three years after the MERS epidemic, he warned that the world was not ready for a future pandemic.

“If something kills more than 10 million people in the next few decades, it is most likely a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.

“This is partly due to the fact that, while we have invested heavily in nuclear deterrents, we have in fact invested very little in the system to stop an epidemic. We are not ready for the next epidemic. “

The warnings of Gates and others have been largely ignored. Some prominent epidemiologists blame a system more focused on business opportunities than on public health needs.

Stuart Blume, professor of science and technology at the University of Amsterdam, agrees that despite the attention paid to the issue around the world, practical organization and preparation were definitely lacking:

“All countries in the past 10 years have been occupied with epidemic preparedness scenarios. But they’re still everywhere (in terms of) trying to figure out what to do. ”

Ildefonso Hernández Aguado, professor of preventive medicine and public health at Miguel Hernández University in Alicante, says that the global financial crisis that began in 2008 has influenced this lack of preparation:

“Previously, exercises were carried out at a certain frequency to prepare for these events. This was halted due to the years of austerity after the crisis.

“Budget cuts have been requested and money has been saved in areas deemed essential. What was going on could have been predicted, but policies and decision-making went in the opposite direction. ”


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