The results of two clinical trials testing whether HIV and Ebola drugs are effective at treating the symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, will be known soon, says the World Health Organization.
Marie-Paule Kieny from the WHO told a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on 12 February that doctors in China have given a combination of two HIV drugs – lopinavir and ritonavir – to “quite a number” of people with covid-19. The results of the trial will be known within “a few days or a few weeks”, she said.
Doctors in China will also start testing a drug called remdesivir, which was originally developed to treat the Ebola virus, in people with covid-19 very soon, Kieny told the press conference. The drug was tested without much success with Ebola, but may be more effective against covid-19, she said. “But we will have to wait for a few weeks to know whether this gives any positive signal,” she added.
In addition, four vaccines are being developed to try to prevent people getting the disease in the first place, Soumya Swaminathan from the WHO told the press conference. “It’s likely that there will be one or two that will go into human trials in about three to four months from now,” she said. “However, it would take at least 12 to 18 months for a vaccine to become available for wider use.”
The press conference followed a global research forum held in Geneva on 11 and 12 February that brought together scientists, public health agencies and health ministries from around the world to discuss the research that needs to be done to tackle the covid-19 outbreak. Researchers from Wuhan, where the outbreak began, attended via video link due to the restrictions on their travel.
The forum identified three research areas that require the most urgent attention: treatment for people who are already sick with covid-19, easier ways to test people to see if they are infected, and understanding the behaviour of the virus.
At the moment, covid-19 testing involves analysing specimens in a lab using specialised equipment. It would be easier if there was a fast, simple test that could be performed on the spot in community settings, Swaminathan told the press conference.
Dominic Dwyer at the University of Sydney, Australia, agrees that the development of these “point of care” tests should be a priority. “The quicker you can make a diagnosis, the quicker you can do something about it – like isolating the patient,” he says. “If a cruise ship had an outbreak of coronavirus, for example, being able to come on board straight away with a point of care device would be very useful.”
We also need to find out more about where the new coronavirus came from, how it jumped to humans, which people it affects most and why, and whether quarantine methods and travel bans are effective at containing it, Swaminathan told the press conference. “I think we have a lot to learn from studying all these,” she said.
The new coronavirus has now infected nearly 60,000 people in China and caused more than 1300 deaths. Outside of China, more than 440 cases and one death have been reported. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from the WHO told the press conference that the outbreak “could still go in any direction”.
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