While a vaccine against the novel coronavirus is expected to take upward of a year to develop and test, other treatments for the deadly threat could be just a few months away, health experts say.
More than 410,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and over 18,000 have died. Several countries have gone into lockdown as the number of those infected by the highly contagious disease continues to rapidly rise.
Scientists around the world are racing to develop treatments and vaccines, which will have to undergo several rounds of testing and clinical trials before moving on to mass production.
“More than 20 vaccines are in development globally, and several therapeutics are in clinical trials,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organization told The Media Line. “No treatment and vaccine exist yet but researchers around the world [are working] hard for it.”
While a vaccine will likely take between 12 and 18 months to be proven safe and effective and be produced for mass use, other effective treatments could emerge much sooner.
Prof. Peter Jay Hotez, a prominent virologist and the dean of the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston, Texas, told The Media Line that the earliest treatment that could work against COVID-19 would be a convalescent serum antibody therapy, in which the antibodies of a person who has recovered from the virus are injected into a sick patient.
In a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2014, researchers demonstrated how convalescent blood plasma might be effective to significantly reduce mortality rates if administered to those who have contracted severe acute respiratory infections (SARIs) soon after their symptoms first appear.
According to Hotez, the next treatment to emerge after this will most likely be “repurposed existing antiviral drugs in a few weeks or months, then new chemical drugs within a year, and a vaccine in one to three years.”
Interestingly, Hotez and his team of scientists already developed a coronavirus vaccine years ago, following the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, which spread out of China and ended up killing more than 770 people worldwide. However, when the vaccine reached the stage of human testing in 2016, he was unable to secure further funding and the trials were never concluded.
“At the time we manufactured it, people had lost interest in coronavirus epidemics and pandemics,” Hotez said, adding that researchers are now working to repurpose that vaccine for COVID-19.
Coronaviruses are a group of related viruses that cause diseases including some cases of the common cold, and not just SARS and COVID-19.
Dr. Rivka Abulafia-Lapid, a senior lecturer on virology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees with Hotez that antiviral treatments will likely become available within six months and much sooner than a vaccine, barring any unforeseen developments.
“Israel already has 11 different drugs for trial [on COVID-19 patients] … so I would say that the first thing to come out will be a drug that will be commonly agreed upon by the world’s scientists and the FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration], followed by a vaccine,” Abulafia-Lapid told The Media Line. “In a couple of months, they will come out with a future treatment or maybe a cocktail of drugs.”