COVID-19: 9 of the Latest Cutting-Edge Medical Developments

From light-emitting disinfecting robots to the latest clinical trials, these are the latest updates.
Chris Young
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Medical misinformation abounds as the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread globally. As always, we recommend hitting the World Health Organization (WHO) page and following the guidance of health experts first and foremost.

In the meantime, we bring you a list of the latest updates on medical developments, from reputed sources, to give you an idea of the measures being taken worldwide to develop treatments for COVID-19.


1. A large European medical trial has just begun

A European medical trial aimed at testing four experimental coronavirus treatments has just been launched. The trial started on the 22nd March and "is planned to include 3200 European patients from Belgium, France, Germany Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom," the French public health research body Inserm has said in a press release.

The trial will test remdesivir, lopinavir and ritonavir in combination, the latter being administered with or without interferon beta and hydroxychloroquine. The treatments were chosen based on the scientific literature on SARS and MERS coronaviruses as well as the first publications on SARS-COV2 from China.

"The great strength of this trial is its “adaptive” nature. This means that ineffective experimental treatments can very quickly be dropped and replaced by other molecules that emerge from research efforts," says Florence Ader, a researcher at the CIRI International Research Centre in Infectiology, and the leader of the trial.

2. Plasma-derived therapy could be the first approved treatment for COVID-19

Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. said its blood plasma-derived therapy to combat the coronavirus infection in patients could be the first treatment to be widely approved. That's because the Japanese pharmaceutical company's treatment uses a process that is safe and has already been approved by regulators, Bloomberg reports.

The process used to manufacture the COVID-19 therapy, also known as "passive antibody therapy," would use antibodies from recovered patients. The same process was recently cited in a Hong Kong study as a potential treatment that could be quickly deployed — as the method has been around since the 1930s.

The main point of negotiation for Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. with regulators is whether the treatment has the necessary concentration of the antibody. 

“We don’t have to demonstrate safety, we just have to agree with the regulatory agencies on how to demonstrate that the titer of antibody present in the final product is sufficient to be effective against the disease,” Julie Kim, Zurich-based president of Takeda’s plasma-derived therapies unit, told Bloomberg. 

3. Favirapir, an approved Japanese drug, is showing promise as a treatment for less severe cases

Medical authorities in China have claimed that favipiravir, a drug that was developed in Japan as a treatment for new strains of influenza, is appearing to be effective as a form of treatment for COVID-19.

A clinical trial has already been carried out involving 340 patients from Wuhan and Shenzhen, The Guardian reports. 

Patients who were given the medicine were shown to be clear of the virus after a median of four days after becoming positive. That's compared with the median of 11 days for those not treated with the drugs, public broadcaster NHK reports.

The researchers did reserve a word of caution, stating that the drug doesn't seem to be very effective in cases that have already become severe.

4. UV light-emitting robots are being used to zap the virus in hospitals

Robots that can disinfect surfaces in hospitals have been sent in truckloads to China, Italy, and other heavily affected countries. UVD Robots, a subsidiary of Blue Ocean Robotics, has seen demand skyrocket since the outbreak started.

These robotic devices use eight light bulbs to emit concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light over hospital surfaces. The light destroys viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microbes by damaging their DNA and RNA, meaning they can no longer multiply.

Though there has been no specific testing of the device's effectiveness against the coronavirus (SARS COV-2), UVD chief executive Per Juul Nielsen, says that the probability of coronavirus being resistant to concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light is very low.

"Coronavirus is very similar to other viruses like Mers and Sars. And we know that they are being killed by UV-C light," Nielsen told the BBC. Other companies, like Xenex and Youibot have also developed their own UV-emitting cleanup robots.

5. COVID-19 vaccine: U.S. human trials underway

On March 16, a human trial started for a COVID-19 vaccine. Though it is a promising development, public health officials say it will take a year to a year and a half to fully test and develop any vaccine. 

People are so far being injected with an investigational vaccine as part of the U.S.'s NIH-funded human trials for the vaccine. 

The investigational vaccine doesn't contain any trace of SARS COV-2. Instead, researchers are testing whether there might be any adverse side effects to a segment of messenger RNA that would be part of the vaccine, once developed.

The first-ever injection of the investigational vaccine took place in Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI), the institute reported in a statement.

6. Experimental drug remdesivir is being tested as a treatment

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has started clinical trials throughout the country to verify the effectiveness of remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19.

Trials began this week at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where Epidemiologist Rajesh Gandhi is leading the hospital's COVID-19 treatment taskforce.

The FDA is using all of its power to accelerate the approval of a COVID-19 treatment drug. Of course, it needs to ensure that these medicines are safe to use and what types of cases — mild or severe — they would most benefit.

"We need answers sooner rather than later," Gandhi told NPR"We got the drug on the weekend, and gave it to the first patient the very next day."

7. A combination of an anti-malarial drug and an HIV-suppressant is being trialed in Australia

In Australia, scientists are starting clinical trials for another potential treatment for those infected by SARS COV-2. The trials will involve 60 hospitals across Australia.

A statement by the University of Queensland describes how they will test Chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, and HIV-suppressing combination lopinavir/ritonavir, as both have shown promise in initial human tests.

“Prior to the clinical trials going ahead, the medications were given to some of the first patients in Australia infected with COVID-19, and all have completely recovered without any trace of the virus left in their system," said University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research Director Professor David Paterson

“However, we know that most people with COVID-19 recover completely, thanks to their immune system, so random anecdotal experiences of some people need to be replaced by rigorous clinical trials,” he explained.

8. Chloroquine is being re-evaluated by the WHO as an effective curative agent

As the WHO points out in a draft of a release, chloroquine was initially shelved from its list of top-priority therapeutic agents to be studied as treatments for COVID-19.

"However, chloroquine has received significant attention in countries as a potentially useful prophylactic and curative agent, prompting the need to examine emerging evidence to inform a decision on its potential role," the release points out.

That's why the WHO is convening a meeting to assess newly available evidence and decide whether chloroquine tests should be a higher priority. At the time of writing, approximately 500 clinical are ongoing in China, 13 of which are evaluating the efficiency of chloroquine.

9. Hong Kong study highlights effectiveness of infection control methods

A study carried out in Hong Kong has evaluated the impact that the outbreak has had on 43 public hospitals in the country.

One observation, in particular, is heartening; in the first 6 weeks since the outbreak began, 413 healthcare workers dealt with 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As a result of the efficient implementation of infection control, none of these healthcare workers contracted the virus. What's more, no hospital-acquired infections occurred.

The study, carried out by Dr. Vincent C.C. Cheng and colleagues from the Department of Microbiology at Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, concludes that, "appropriate hospital infection control measures," such as "vigilance in hand hygiene practice, wearing of surgical masks in the hospital, and appropriate use of personal protective equipment in patient care [...] are the key infection control measures to prevent hospital transmission of the virus.”

Though it's difficult to remain positive in such challenging times, the fact that so many clinical trials — some already showing positive results — are underway, shows that the scientific community is pulling together to find a solution. Here's hoping that more positive developments are just around the corner.

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