The refocusing of medical research to COVID-19 is unprecedented in human history. Seven months ago, we barely were aware that the virus existed, and now a torrent of new information greets us each day online.
There are many unanswered questions about COVID-19, but perhaps the most fascinating is whether we even need to directly go after the virus itself.
Clinicaltrials.gov, the most commonly used registry for worldwide medical research, listed 1358 clinical trials on the disease, including using scores of different potential drugs and multiple combinations, when I first wrote this sentence. The following day that number of trials had increased to 1409. Laboratory work to prepare for trials presents an even broader and untabulated scope of activity.
Most trials will fail or not be as good as what has been discovered in the interim, but the hope is that a handful of them will yield vaccines for prevention and treatments to attenuate and ultimately cure the deadly infection.
The first impulse is to grab whatever drugs are on the shelf and see if any work against the new foe. We know their safety profiles and they have passed some regulatory hurdles. Remdesivir is the first to register some success against SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the disease. The FDA has granted it expedited-use status, pending presentation of data that may lead to full approval of the drug.
Most observers see it as a treatment that might help, but not one that by itself is likely to break the back of the pandemic. Part of that is because it is delivered though IV infusion, which requires hospitalization, and as with most antiviral drugs, appears to be most beneficial when started early in disease. "The most effective products are going to be that ones that are developed by actually understanding more about this coronavirus," says Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg, who once led the New York City public health department and later the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Combination therapy that uses different drugs to hit a virus at different places in its life cycle have proven to work best in treating HIV and hepatitis C, and likely will be needed with this virus as well. Most viruses are simply too facile at evolving resistance to a single drug, and so require multiple hits to keep them down.
Laboratory work suggests that other drugs, both off-the-shelf and in development, particularly those to treat HIV and hepatitis, might also be of some benefit against SARS-CoV-2. But the number of possible drug combinations is mind-bogglingly large and the capacity to test them all right now is limited.
Viruses are simple quasi-life forms. Effective treatments are more likely to be specific to a given virus, or at best its close relatives. That is unlike bacteria, where broad-spectrum antibiotics often can be used against common elements like the bacterial cell wall, or can disrupt quorum sensing signals that bacteria use to function as biofilms.
More than a decade ago, virologist Benhur Lee's lab at UCLA (now at Mt. Sinai in New York City) stumbled upon a broad-spectrum antiviral approach that seemed to work against all enveloped viruses they tested. The list ranged from the common flu to HIV to Ebola.
Other researchers grabbed this lead to develop a compound that worked quite well in cell cultures, but when they tried it in animals, a frustrating snag emerged; the compound needed to be activated by light. As the greatest medical need is to counter viruses deep inside the body, the research was put on the shelf. So Lee was surprised to learn recently that a company has inquired about rights to develop the compound not as a treatment but as a possible disinfectant. The tale illustrates both the unanticipated difficulties of drug development and that one never knows how knowledge ultimately might be put to use.
Remdesivir is a failed drug for Ebola that has found new life with SARS-CoV-2. It targets polymerase, an enzyme that the virus produces to use host cell machinery to replicate itself, and since the genetic sequence of polymerase is very similar among all of the different coronaviruses, scientists hope that the drug might be useful against known members of the family and others that might emerge in the future.
But nature isn't always that simple. Viral RNA is not a two-dimensional assemblage of genes in a flat line on a table; rather it is a three-dimensional matrix of twists and turns where a single atom change within the polymerase gene or another gene close by might change the orientation of the RNA or a molecular arm within it and block a drug from accessing the targeted binding site on the virus. One drug might need to bind to a large flat surface, while another might be able to slip a dagger-like molecular arm through a space in the matrix to reach its binding target.
That is why a broad-spectrum antiviral is so hard to develop, and why researchers continue to work on a wide variety of compounds that target polymerase as a binding site.
Additionally, it has taken us decades to begin to recognize the unintended consequences of broad-spectrum rather than narrowly targeted antibiotics on the gut microbiome and our overall health. Will a similar issue potentially arise in using a broad-spectrum antiviral?
"Off-target side effects are always of concern with drugs, and antivirals are no exception," says Yale University microbiologist Ben Chen. He believes that "most" bacteriophages, the viruses that infect bacteria and likely help to maintain stability in the gut microbial ecosystem, will shrug off such a drug. However, a few families of phages share polymerases that are similar to those found in coronaviruses. While the immediate need for treatment is great, we will have to keep a sharp eye out for unanticipated activity in the body's ecosystem from new drugs.
Is an Antiviral Needed?
There are many unanswered questions about COVID-19, but perhaps the most fascinating is whether we even need to directly go after the virus itself. Mounting evidence indicates that up to half the people who contract the infection don't seem to experience significant symptoms and their immune system seems to clear the virus.
The most severe cases of COVID-19 appear to result from an overactive immune response that damages surrounding tissue. Perhaps downregulating that response will be sufficient to reduce the disease burden. Several studies are underway using approved antibodies that modulate an overly active immune response.
One of the most surprising findings to date involves the monoclonal antibody leronlimab. It was originally developed to treat HIV infection and works modestly well there, but other drugs are better and its future likely will be mainly to treat patients who have developed resistance to those other drugs.
The response has been amazingly different in patients in the U.S. with COVID-19 who were given emergency access to leronlimab – two injections a week apart, though the company believes that four might be better. The immune response and inflammatory cytokines declined significantly, T cell counts were maintained, and surprisingly the amount of virus in the blood declined too. Data from the first ten patients is available in a preprint while the paper undergoes peer review for publication. Data from an additional fifty patients will be added.
"We got lucky and hit the bulls' eye from a mile away," says Jay Lalezari, the chief science officer of Cytodyn, the company behind leronlimab. Dr. Jay, as he is widely known in San Francisco, built an adoring fan base running many of the early-phase drug studies for treating HIV. While touting leronlimab, Lalezari suspects it might best be used as part of a combination therapy.
The small, under-capitalized firm is struggling for attention in the vast pool of therapies proposed to treat COVID-19. It faces the added challenge of gaining acceptance because it is based on a different approach and mechanism of action, which involves a signaling molecule important to immune cell migration, than what most researchers and the FDA anticipate as being relevant to counter SARS-CoV-2.
All of the therapeutics under development will face some common sets of issues. One is the pressure to have results yesterday, because people are dying. The rush to disseminate information "make me worry that certain things will become entrenched as truth, even in the scientific community, without the actual scientific documentation that ordinarily scientists would demand," says Hamburg.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem for drug and vaccine makers is not which therapeutics or vaccine platform to pursue."
Lack of standardization in assays and laboratory operations makes it difficult to compare results between labs studying SARS-CoV-2. In the long run, this will slow down the iterative process of research that builds upon what has gone before. And the shut down of supply chains, from chemicals to cell lines to animals to air shipment, has the potential to further hobble research.
Almost all researchers consult with the FDA in putting together their clinical trials. But the agency is overwhelmed with the surge of activity in the field, and is even less capable of handling novel approaches that fall outside of its standard guidance.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem for drug and vaccine makers is not which therapeutics or vaccine platform to pursue. It is that conventional clinical development paths are far too lengthy and cumbersome to address the current public health threat," John Hodgson wrote in Nature Biotechnology.
Another complicating factor with this virus is the broad range of organ and tissue types it can infect. That has implications for potential therapies, which often vary in their ability to enter different tissues. At a minimum, it complicates the drug development process.
Remdesivir has become the de facto standard of care. Ideally, clinical trials are conducted using the existing standard of care rather than a placebo as the control group. But shortages of the drug make that difficult and further inhibit learning what is the best treatment regimen for regular clinical care.
"Understandably, we all really want to respond to COVID-19 in a much, much more accelerated fashion," says Hamburg. But ultimately that depends upon "the reality of understanding the nature of the disease. And that is going to take a bit more time than we might like or wish."
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.