Carson Gerber CNHI News Indiana
The world is waiting on a vaccine for COVID-19, and hospitals, researchers and companies across Indiana are leading the way to help find a cure.
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Since February, governments and biomedical companies from around the world have been moving at lightning speed to find a vaccine and therapies that could slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which first began appearing in China in December.
But even with an international consortium working together, a viable vaccine is likely still months away, said Dr. Nicolas Barros, an infectious diseases specialist at IU Health and assistant professor of clinical medicine at IU School of Medicine.
“I’m very optimistic about it, but I still think we have to be cautious and understand that there still has to be a lot of work done from today until we have an effective vaccine,” he said.
Clinical trials are underway in the U.S. testing a slew of potential drugs and experimental medications that could lead to a vaccine for the virus, which now has over 2.5 million cases worldwide.
And researchers in Indiana are right there on the front lines in the dash to find a cure. Here’s a look at what Hoosier companies, hospitals and institutions are doing to aid in the worldwide search for a vaccine.
Eli Lilly and Co.
On April 10, Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. announced it had launched a study to investigate the potential to use a rheumatoid arthritis drug, called baricitinib, as a treatment for COVID-19.
The study is investigating the effectiveness and safety of baricitinib as a potential treatment for hospitalized patients diagnosed with the virus, beginning this month in the U.S. with a planned expansion to additional sites in Europe and Asia. The company said results are expected within the next two months.
Baricitinib is approved in more than 65 countries as a treatment for adults with moderately to severely active rheumatoid arthritis. Lilly said the drug warrants further study in coronavirus patients because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
The study is part of an agreement with the National Institutes of Health, which brought together more than a dozen leading biopharmaceutical companies to develop an international strategy for a coordinated research response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NIH Director Francis Collins said the joint effort aims to “bring the full power of the biomedical research enterprise to bear on this crisis.”
“Now is the time to come together with unassailable objectivity to swiftly advance the development of the most promising vaccine and therapeutic candidates that can help end the COVID-19 global pandemic,” he said in a release.
File photoGetting to work: In this file photo, nurse Karen Lopke mixes and draws a vaccine into a syringe.
The team also includes the Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency.
Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories, said the company is moving at top speed and using all its available resources to help fight the pandemic alongside the other agencies.
“Developing potential therapeutic medicines for COVID-19 is part of our vital and humanitarian mission,” he said. “To be successful, we must combine resources, data and expertise, with government, academia and other companies.”
Lilly said beyond the NIH effort, it is also taking a look at an antibody, called LY3127804, to the next phase of testing in pneumonia patients hospitalized with COVID-19, who are at a higher risk of progressing to acute respiratory distress syndrome. The company said the trial will begin later this month at several U.S. centers.
In a way, John Patton began working on a vaccine for COVID-19 before it even existed.
Patton, professor of biology and virology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, has been studying viruses for more than 30 years, focusing mainly on rotavirus, which can infect infants and young children and cause nausea and diarrhea.
Today, most infants in the U.S. receive a rotavirus vaccine, which has been effective in stopping its spread. But that’s not the case in developing countries, where rotavirus vaccines have not been as effective, for reasons that remain unclear.
Patton and his laboratory colleagues continued to study the biology of rotavirus and its development as a way for creating effective vaccines against other viruses.
Then came COVID-19. In early February, Patton quickly realized that his lab was primed to work on a vaccine as the virus spread like wildfire around the world.
Now, Patton and his team are working to tweak the rotavirus vaccine for children so it would also protect them against COVID-19.
“In a nutshell, we’re developing a dual vaccine that provides protection against both viruses,” he said in a release.
Patton said it’s critical to develop a vaccine for children, since recent research has suggested that infants and preschool-aged children are more prone to severe disease than school-aged children. Children can also be asymptomatic carriers, silently spreading COVID-19 disease throughout families and communities.
“Long term, we will likely need to vaccinate infants and newborns, if we are to control this virus,” he says.
Patton said he hopes to find out in the next few months if the new strains of vaccine will work to produce the desired antibody response. If the vaccine strains are viable, the next step is testing to make sure the vaccine is “safe, safe, safe” for humans, Patton said.
With a sped-up pipeline to develop a vaccine, Patton said, they should know in 12 to 18 months if it’s possible the scale up their strain to create the millions of doses that will be required to control the pandemic through immunization.
While companies and researchers scramble to develop a vaccine, Indiana hospitals are trying another approach to help current coronavirus patients fight off the disease.
At Indiana University Health, doctors are looking for patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate blood plasma to aid critically-ill patients battling the virus.
For those who have recovered from COVID-19, their blood may contain antibodies that are able to fight and control the virus. These antibodies can be collected from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and be transfused to patients. The process is called convalescent plasma infusion.
IU Health’s Barros said given that there are no vaccinations or proven medications to treat the novel coronavirus, the use of convalescent plasma could prove successful in the management of the disease even though it’s a new treatment still under investigation.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of convalescent plasma because of the lack of therapeutic treatments for COVID-19.
“It is potentially a medication that can be used until the vaccine is available for everyone, which hopefully happens in a short period of time, relatively speaking,” Barros said. “But a vaccination would be ideal to halt the pandemic and re-occurrence of the virus.”
Jonathan Gottlieb, executive vice president and chief medical officer at IU Health, said the health network is uniquely positioned to leverage the investigative treatment because of its existing living donor program and close partnership with IU School of Medicine.
“Not only is it a potential way to develop effective treatments for this virus, it’s a gift from one donor that could impact multiple lives,” he said.
Barros said over 300 people have already come forward to give plasma. He said each donation has the potential to treat up to two patients infected with the coronavirus.
Donors must be able to prove they had a COVID-19 diagnosis with a positive, documented laboratory test. Donors must also be symptom-free for 28 days. IU Health is working with blood centers to identify eligible plasma donors and facilitate the donations.
The American Red Cross is also taking plasma donations from fully recovered coronavirus patients.