The race to develop COVID-19 vaccines has opened up research opportunities to study coronavirus treatments, which could help deal with the illness if it becomes endemic, Edmonton researchers say.
Some experts predict that COVID-19 may become endemic — meaning a base level of infection remains within Canada and may show up annually like the flu. So researchers, including University of Alberta physics professor Michael Woodside, are looking into coronavirus treatments.
“Fortunately, it was clear pretty early on that the vaccines were going to be fairly effective,” Woodside said.
“That actually gives us time to come up with these longer-term solutions for the broader problem of other coronavirus diseases.”
Woodside had worked on a compound that was effective in “knocking down the viral replication for the original SARS” illness over a decade ago. But no one “was very interested in the drug because that disease went away,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, he and others in the science community started researching ways to tackle COVID-19.
Woodside is currently working on finding a drug to prevent COVID-19 from replicating once inside an infected person.
If successful, promising compounds will be given to collaborators to “assess therapeutic effectiveness against the virus,” according to the university’s online description of his research.
That drug could then be something kept in medicine cabinets to treat coronaviruses, Woodside said.
“It wouldn’t just help with COVID-19 and its variants — it would be something like a first line of defense if we had [COVID-27] or something like that down the line,” he said
There’s a shift in research from the initial push to develop vaccines to a focus on the treatment of COVID-19, said Cynthia Carr, Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research.
“There’s a lot to be learned there,” she said, adding that now is the time for researchers to explore treatments and be forward-thinking when it comes to the coronavirus.
“If we learn more about how to [treat] one particular virus, perhaps that principle would work with other viruses.”
Health Canada has been fast-tracking the review of COVID-19 treatments by using similar review processes as those for vaccines. The agency will make “treatment authorization decisions based on the best scientific evidence,” its website says.
Vaccine trials are still happening in Canada, with 16 COVID-19 vaccines listed in clinical trials as of Friday, according to Health Canada’s website.
Among the list is Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals, which has been going through the approval process for their DNA-based vaccine. The second phase of trials is set to begin at the end of the summer.
John Lewis, a professor of oncology at the University of Alberta and CEO of Entos Pharmaceuticals, said their work on testing out a COVID-19 vaccine has opened up new areas of research, including developing what Lewis called “a pan-coronavirus” vaccine.
“We expect it to be broadly protective against not only emerging variants, such as the delta variant, but also potentially other circulating coronaviruses,” he said.
“In the research side of things, we’re looking at the ability of either of our candidates to be a booster for one of the approved vaccines because we think that’s going to be a key area in North America.”
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