COVID-19 may overwhelm hospitals. Here's how race for treatments could help
The race for a novel coronavirus vaccine and COVID-19 treatments is taking key steps forward as a series of clinical trials launched this week.
Health officials and drug makers suggested a treatment could be weeks away and a vaccine remains at 12 to 18 months down the road.
Yet the progress made so far by scientists, in some cases accomplished at record speed, offers the rare glimmers of hope amid dire updates on rapidly evolving attempts to prevent expected surges in COVID-19 cases from overwhelming hospitals.
Finding treatments is crucial to saving the lives of thousands of the infected, especially high-risk patients – the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and those with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, experts said.
"I'm very hopeful and very positive. We'll get through this," Robert Kruse, a doctor in the Department of Pathology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said to the USA TODAY Network.
"I've been shocked this week at the measures that have been taken (to alter daily life). They were probably the correct ones, given that they have worked in other countries."
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Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the biotech giant based in Westchester County, has several projects underway targeting the new coronavirus.
Clinical trials started Monday on using an existing drug, Kevzara, to try to block the overactive inflammatory response in the lungs of patients who are severely or critically ill with COVID-19, the company said in a statement.
The trials began at medical centers in New York because it is one of the epicenters of the U.S. outbreak, Regeneron officials said. It is a collaboration with Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company based in France.
Early data from China suggested the drug, which is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, could be effective to treat COVID-19, they said, adding the trial will be split into two phases.
The first part will recruit patients with severe COVID-19 infection across about 16 U.S. sites, and will evaluate the drug’s impact on fever and patients' need for supplemental oxygen.
The second and larger part of the trial will evaluate the improvement in longer-term outcomes, including preventing death and reducing the need for mechanical ventilation, supplemental oxygen and hospitalization, the company said.
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Currently, about 80% of people infected with COVID-19 will self-resolve, but the potential that thousands of severely ill patients will require hospitalization in coming weeks is what threatens to overwhelm the health care system, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
That's why New York and other states are shutting down schools and gathering places and urging people to practice social distancing to limit the virus' spread until a treatment, and eventually a vaccine, can help ease the burden on hospitals.
Meanwhile, Regeneron is also making strides on its coronavirus project that is using genetically altered mice that mimic the human immune system. It aims to produce antibodies that could block or treat the new coronavirus.
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The project also recently isolated antibodies from humans who have recovered from COVID-19. The next step involves picking the most effective antibodies and then mass-producing hundreds of thousands of doses for human trials, which could begin this summer, the company said.
A similar approach worked in finding a drug that has proven effective against Ebola.
Pfizer Inc, the pharmaceutical giant with a vaccine development program in Rockland County, also announced a partnership this week with BioNTech SE, a German-based company.
The two companies signed a letter of intent regarding the co-development and distribution of a potential mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection, Pfizer said in a statement.
“This is a global pandemic, which requires a global effort. In joining forces with our partner Pfizer, we believe we can accelerate our effort to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to people around the world who need it,” said Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech.
The two companies expect to utilize multiple research and development sites from both companies, including in the United States and Germany, to house the activities identified by the collaboration agreement. They didn’t immediately disclose financial details of the deal.
OyaGen, Inc., a Rochester-based biotech company, also recently announced promising results in its effort to use an existing drug to treat COVID-19 patients.
The drug, OYA1, had prior Food and Drug Administration approval as an investigational new drug for treating cancer in the 1960s but was abandoned for a lack of efficacy. Now, the company is conducting research with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that aims to use it against COVID-19.
If further testing proves the drug is effective against COVID-19, the company said it “will serve as a stop-gap treatment until appropriate vaccines are developed.”
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The first shots in the first vaccine trial for the new coronavirus were administered Monday as a small group of volunteers in Seattle will receive varying doses over the next several weeks to test the safety of the experimental vaccine.
Doctors at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle gave the first shots in the trial aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19.
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"Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2 is an urgent public health priority," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said in a statement. "This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal."
SARS-CoV-2 is the medical name of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last week.
The trial is to include 45 healthy adults ages 18-55 and last for approximately 6 weeks as volunteers will receive two shots about a month apart. The experimental vaccine was developed by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and at the biotechnology company Moderna, Inc.
USA TODAY Network and Associated Press contributed to this report
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