Today marked the conclusion of a 2-day global research meeting in Geneva aiming to set priorities to answer key questions about COVID-19 and tackle the outbreak. At the top of everyone’s wish list is a simpler diagnostic test and treatment protocol.
Soumya Swaminathan, MD, the WHO’s chief scientist, said a simpler diagnostic test will also be useful for lower-income countries that don’t have complex lab facilities. She said another very high priority is information on optimal treatment and the best treatment protocols, which need studies based on standard data collection.
Dr. Swaminathan also said more research on transmission and epidemiology is crucial. “We really need to understand this virus—its transmission, age-groups, underlying conditions, what makes it more severe, impacts of interventions,” she said. “We have a lot to learn from studying all of these.”
WHO officials said researchers are still working on a master protocol to study existing therapies, used singly or in combination.
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The meeting, hosted in collaboration with GloPID-R (the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness) brought together major research funders and over 300 scientists and researchers from a large variety of disciplines. They discussed all aspects of the outbreak and ways to control it including:
- the natural history of the virus, its transmission and diagnosis;
- animal and environmental research on the origin of the virus, including management measures at the human-animal interface;
- epidemiological studies;
- clinical characterization and management of disease caused by the virus;
- infection prevention and control, including best ways to protect health care workers;
- research and development for candidate therapeutics and vaccines;
- ethical considerations for research;
- and integration of social sciences into the outbreak response.
During the meeting, the more than 300 scientists and researchers participating both in person and virtually agreed on a set of global research priorities. They also outlined mechanisms for continuing scientific interactions and collaborations beyond the meeting which will be coordinated and facilitated by WHO. They worked with research funders to determine how necessary resources can be mobilized so that critical research can start immediately.
The deliberations will form the basis of a research and innovation roadmap charting all the research needed and this will be used by researchers and funders to accelerate the research response.
Read more at WHO
The speed with which projects have got up and running is a reflection of better preparedness following the emergence of two other coronavirus infections, MERs and SARs, and in particular, of the 2013 – 2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
The time taken to coordinate the international response to expedite development and manufacturing of Ebola drugs and vaccines, and to initiate clinical trials in affected areas, led directly to the R&D Blueprint, WHO’s strategy for developing products before epidemics, and accelerating R&D during epidemics.
The West Africa Ebola epidemic also prompted the formation in January 2017 of the Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (CEPI). COVID-19 is the first new epidemic disease to emerge since, and CEPI was able to rapidly mobilize resources, directing four pre-existing vaccines programs to focus on the novel coronavirus, and also launching a call for proposals for the fast development and manufacture of other vaccines, which closes on Feb 14.
Robin Shattock, head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London, who is a recipient of CEPI funding, said the availability of COVID-19’s DNA sequence allowed his group to identify the surface proteins of the virus and generate a lipid encapsulated RNA vaccine construct in 14 days. Animal tests are underway.
“We will do the first clinical studies by the summer to test for safety and immunogenicity,” Shattock said. Going from that point to an efficacy trial is not usually a quick process. “The earliest a vaccine could potentially be available for widespread use will depend on the level of funding and commitment,” said Shattock.
Also quick off the mark in response to the online publication of COVID-19’s DNA sequence, in this case to develop a diagnostic, was Novacyt SA, of Paris. Since the launch on Jan 31, the company has sold 33,000 of its research-only tests and had enquiries for a further 32,000.
Next week it will launch a CE-marked version that can be used for clinical diagnosis and has applied for FDA Emergency Approval Use. The diagnostic, which is stable at ambient temperature, produces a result in two hours.
Another diagnostics company, Mobidiag, of Espoo, Finland, said this week that it has started development of a molecular diagnostic for the simultaneous detection of COVID-19 and influenza viruses. That will make it possible to rapidly single out COVID-19 infections in people presenting with flu-like symptoms. The assay, being developed in collaboration with Autobio Diagnostics Co. Ltd., of Zhengzhou, China, will process samples in 30 minutes.
Read more at BioWorld