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Where We’re at with Vaccines and Treatments for COVID-19

Share on PinterestScientists around the world are working on a number of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. Xinhua/Zhang Yuwei via Getty Images

  • Scientists around the world are working on potential treatments and vaccines for the new coronavirus disease known as COVID-19.
  • Several companies are working on antiviral drugs, some of which are already in use against other illnesses, to treat people who already have COVID-19.
  • Other companies are working on vaccines that could be used as a preventive measure against the disease.

With confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide surpassing 9 million and continuing to grow, scientists are pushing forward with efforts to develop vaccines and treatments to slow the pandemic and lessen the disease’s damage.

Some of the earliest treatments will likely be drugs that are already approved for other conditions, or have been tested on other viruses.

“People are looking into whether existing antivirals might work or whether new drugs could be developed to try to tackle the virus,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

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As of May 8, two medications had received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): the antiviral remdesivir and a drug used to sedate people on a ventilator.

The FDA issued an EUA in March for the antimalaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, but later revoked it after studies showed that they’re unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19.

An EUA allows doctors to use these drugs to treat people with COVID-19 even before the medications have gone through the formal FDA approval process.

These drugs are still being tested in clinical trials to see whether they’re effective against COVID-19. This step is needed to make sure the medications are safe for this particular use and what the proper dosage should be.

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It could be months before treatments are available that are known to work against COVID-19. It could be even longer for a vaccine.

But there are still other tools we can use to reduce the damage done by the new coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2.

“Even though technological advances allow us to do certain things more quickly,” Lee told Healthline, “we still have to rely on social distancing, contact tracing, self-isolation, and other measures.”

Drug development is sometimes described as a pipeline, with compounds moving from early laboratory development to laboratory and animal testing to clinical trials in people.

It can take a decade or more for a new compound to go from initial discovery to the marketplace. Many compounds never even make it that far.

That’s why many medications being eyed as potential treatments for COVID-19 are drugs that already exist.

In a review in the British Journal of Pharmacology, scientists from the United Kingdom called for wider screening of existing drugs to see if they might work against the new coronavirus.

They identified three stages of infection at which the virus could be targeted: keeping the virus from entering our cells, preventing it from replicating inside the cells, and minimizing the damage that the virus does to the organs.

Many of the drugs being developed or tested for COVID-19 are antivirals. These would target the virus in people who already have an infection.

Lee says antivirals work better if you administer them sooner, “before the virus has a chance to multiply significantly.” And also before the virus has caused significant damage to the body, such as to the lungs or other tissues.

Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), says both antivirals and vaccines will be valuable tools in combating COVID-19.

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However, he told Healthline that “antivirals are likely to be developed and approved before a vaccine, which typically takes longer.”

Remdesivir

Developed a decade ago, this drug failed in clinical trials against Ebola in 2014. But it was found to be generally safe in people. Research with MERS, a disease caused by a different coronavirus, showed that the drug blocked the…

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