China which remained the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak for a long time, has been developing a drug it believes has the power to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to a halt.
The novel Coronavirus was first detected in China late last year before spreading across the world, prompting an international race to find treatments and vaccines. It has been widely speculated that the virus emerged from the wet markets in the country, jumping species from bat to human.
Scientists of China’s prestigious Peking University are testing a drug which could not only shorten the recovery time for those infected, but even offer short-term immunity from the virus, according to the researchers.
Sunney Xie, director of the university’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics said that the drug has been successful at the animal testing stage, reported news agency AFP.
“When we injected neutralising antibodies into infected mice, after five days the viral load was reduced by a factor of 2,500. That means this potential drug has (a) therapeutic effect,” said Xie.
The drug uses neutralising antibodies which are produced by the human immune system to prevent the virus infecting cells which Xie’s team isolated from the blood of 60 recovered patients.
Scientific journal Cell published on Sunday a study on the research team’s work which suggests that using the antibodies provides a potential “cure” for the disease and shortens recovery time.
Xie said his team had been working “day and night” searching for the antibody.
“Our expertise is single-cell genomics rather than immunology or virology. When we realised that the single-cell genomic approach can effectively find the neutralising antibody we were thrilled,” he added.
The director added that the drug should be ready for use later this year and in time for any potential winter outbreak of the virus, which has infected 4.8 million people around the world and killed more than 315,000.
“Planning for the clinical trial is underway,” said Xie, adding it will be carried out in Australia and other countries since cases have dwindled in China, offering fewer human guinea pigs for testing. The hope is these neutralised antibodies can become a specialised drug that would stop the pandemic,” he said.
China already has five potential coronavirus vaccines at the human trial stage, a health official said last week.
But the World Health Organization has warned that developing a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months.
Scientists have also pointed to the potential benefits of plasma , a blood fluid from recovered individuals who have developed antibodies to the virus enabling the body’s defences to attack it.
More than 700 patients have received plasma therapy in China, a process which authorities said showed “very good therapeutic effects”.
“However, it (plasma) is limited in supply,” Xie said, noting that the 14 neutralising antibodies used in their drug could be put into mass production quickly.
Using antibodies in drug treatments is not a new approach, and it has been successful in treating several other viruses such as HIV, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Xie said his researchers had “an early start” since the outbreak started in China before spreading to other countries.
Ebola drug Remdesivir was considered a hopeful early treatment for COVID-19 — clinical trials in the US showed it shortened the recovery time in some patients by a third — but the difference in mortality rate was not significant.
The new drug could even offer short-term protection against the virus.
The study showed that if the neutralising antibody was injected before the mice were infected with the virus, the mice stayed free of infection and no virus was detected.
This may offer temporary protection for medical workers for a few weeks, which Xie said they are hoping to “extend to a few months”.
More than 100 vaccines for COVID-19 are in the works globally, but as the process of vaccine development is more demanding, Xie is hoping that the new drug could be a faster and more efficient way to stop the global march of the coronavirus.
“We would be able to stop the pandemic with an effective drug, even without a vaccine,” he said.
The novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, prompting the Chinese government to impose a stringent lockdown in the city on January 23, isolating the industrial and transport centre from the rest of the country and confining residents to their homes.
China has largely brought the novel coronavirus under control, but has been on edge recently about a potential second wave of infections as it lifted lockdowns and restrictions across the country.
Residents of Wuhan were tested for the novel coronavirus on Thursday after a new cluster of cases sparked a mass screening campaign.
China has gone a month without announcing any new deaths from the coronavirus, AP reports. The National Health Commission reported four new cases of the virus Friday, all local cross-infections in the northeastern province of Jilin where a cluster of uncertain origin has been detected in recent days. The last time the commission reported a death was on 14 April.
According to Johns Hopkins University over 4.7 million people have been infected, while over 3.15 lakh casualties have been reported globally.