Coronavirus: New drug and vaccine show promise against COVID-19

Two major breakthroughs have been made in the scientific fight against the virus behind COVID-19.

One is a treatment that inhibits the SARS-CoV-2 virus' ability to spread in an infected host, and the other a potential vaccine.

As of midday Friday (NZ time), COVID-19 had killed at least 52,770 people and infected more than a million globally, though there is growing evidence both these numbers fall short of the true totals. 

University of Otago infectious disease Michael Baker said on Friday the epidemic was on track to infect more than half the world's population and kill 20 million people.

"It's very grim, and I think just another very good reason we are fortunate to be in New Zealand and do absolutely everything we can do to dampen down transmission," he told The AM Show. 

Scientists across the world are racing to find medical ways to treat and prevent the disease. The virus first came to attention amongst the Chinese medical community in December because it caused pneumonia and other conditions that didn't respond to conventional treatment. 

But now a team headed by University of British Columbia researcher Josef Penninger say they've found a drug which, in trials on cell cultures and human organ replicas grown from stem cells, is able to reduce the virus' load "by a factor of 1000-5000". 

The virus latches onto our cells by hooking into an enzyme on the outer layer called ACE2. SARS back in 2003 spread the same way, but the SARS-CoV-2 virus is much better at it.

The drug, APN01, essentially catches the virus and washes it away. 

"The virus causing COVID-19 is a close sibling to the first SARS virus," said Dr Penninger. 

"Our previous work has helped to rapidly identify ACE2 as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2, which explains a lot about the disease. Now we know that a soluble form of ACE2 that catches the virus away, could be indeed a very rational therapy that specifically targets the gate the virus must take to infect us. There is hope for this horrible pandemic."

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, isolated from a patient in the US.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, isolated from a patient in the US. Photo credit: Reuters

European biotech company Apeiron Biologics is about to start clinical trials of the drug on 200 infected patients in Australia, Denmark and Germany. According to the company, APN01 has already "been shown to be safe and well-tolerated in a total of 89 healthy volunteers and patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension".

Another vaccine candidate

While social distancing and lockdown measures will slow the virus' spread, and potentially even eliminate it in isolated communities like New Zealand, consigning it to the history books - and reopening the borders safely - will require a vaccine. 

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine think they might be onto something with a thumbnail-sized patch they believe could prevent infection in the first place.

The patch has about 400 microneedles made of sugar and the same protein the virus uses to latch onto the ACE2 enzyme. Once applied - like a Band-Aid - it simply dissolves into the skin. 

"We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin, but as a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient," said dermatologist Louis Falo, co-author of the research paper. 

"And it's actually pretty painless - it feels kind of like Velcro."

Testing on mice showed it was able to trigger their immune systems to produce enough antibodies to hold off the SARS-CoV-2 virus for potentially a year. 

The vaccine is also able to be produced in bulk in moulds, and doesn't need to be refrigerated before use.

"For most vaccines, you don't need to address scalability to begin with," said co-senior author Andrea Gambotto, professor of surgery. "But when you try to develop a vaccine quickly against a pandemic that's the first requirement."

They hope to begin human trials soon.

"Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer," said Dr Falo. 

"This particular situation is different from anything we've ever seen, so we don't know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster."

The research into APN01 was published in journal Cell and the vaccine study in EBioMedicine, both on Friday (NZ time).