Medical breakthroughs as a silver lining of the global pandemic

The European Commission confirmed this week that the Covid-19 vaccine contracts penned with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson will not be renewed when they expire next year, in what is only the latest hiccup in the rollout of vaccinations on the continent.

Distribution has proceeded so sluggishly, in fact, that the World Health Organisation condemned the EU’s vaccination progress as “unacceptably slow” and more worrying now than in previous months. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the twists and turns of the highly politicised rollout are hogging policy decisions. But the spotlight on mass vaccination is to the detriment of major public health successes, which are instead falling under the radar.

Amid the din of the media furor, it is all too easy to forget that the development of the Covid-19 vaccines in a matter of months, in fact, shattered all medical precedents. The previous record for the production of a successful vaccine was four years for mumps in 1967. The FDA’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab mid-December 2020, beat the forecast of infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci by nine months. This is because the sheer scale of the pandemic saw an unprecedented pooling of resources and acceleration of research, without any compromise on safety. Indeed, while politicians continue to quibble about distribution and passport policies, the medical community is rallying behind the scenes to ensure that the unprecedented public health emergency will also be remembered for historic medical breakthroughs.

Lung research is helping patients breathe.

While poor politicking in the European Commission leaves much to be desired in terms of vaccine access for European citizens, funds from member states have been used to productive ends in the meantime. An innovative clinical trial financed by the EU discovered in January that two immunosuppressant drugs, tocilizumab and sarilumab, which are normally used as treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, reduce the likelihood of the death of a Covid-19 sufferer by almost a quarter, as well as greatly reducing the time the patient spends in intensive care.

Such discoveries are not only encouraging but can also help to bridge the treatment gap for Covid-19 sufferers until more vaccines become available. Another highly promising case in point in that respect sargramostim (better known as Leukine).

Leukine is a broad-spectrum medical countermeasure patented by the US integrated biotechnology company Partner Therapeutics (PTx). New data from a randomised trial led by the University Hospital Ghent in February this year proved that this drug can be efficiently used for Covid patients, following improvements in the oxygenation of patients suffering from the acute respiratory disease. In fact, it has been suggested that Leukine could be a viable treatment for a range of pulmonary conditions which do not currently have approved cures.

For example, in the case of autoimmune pulmonary alveolar proteinosis (aPAP), a rare lung disease, Leukine could prove to be beneficial as well. At present, the only widely approved treatment for aPAP requires a costly and painful process, where the patient must undergo hospitalisation every year in order to undergo lung lavage, during which doctors flush the lungs with up to 60 litres of fluid.

But pulmonologists now suggest that Leukine can help patients suffering from aPAP by clearing the pulmonary organs, eliminating the necessity of painful whole lung lavages. Leukine was approved by the US Federal Drug Association back in 1991, and green-lighted for five clinical applications to date, but deserves greater attention for its therapeutic scope in Europe as well.

So long Covid?

The urgent need and increased funding for the respiratory disease caused by Covid-19 has expedited long-awaited relief for sufferers of other lung diseases. The streamlining of research which was so successful in turbo boosting the development of Covid-19 vaccine technology has also stimulated a fast response to so-called Long Covid. The condition, increasingly a worry to health practitioners, refers to the chronic cough, extreme fatigue and even cognitive dysfunction which affect 10-30% of those who have contracted Covid-19. It is thought that 1.1 million previously infected people are currently suffering from the malady, and it is still unclear how long the symptoms could last.

On the upside, the acceleration of clinical trials during the global pandemic has catalysed the announcement of an impending national drug trial in the UK to examine the effect of existing drugs on Long Covid. The appropriately titled, HEAL-COVID (HElping to Aleviate the Longer-term consequences of COVID-19), will test the responses of patients given either the blood thinner, ‘apixaban’, or the statin used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, ‘atorvastatin’.

Hope for HIV sufferers.

The acceleration of medical research into immunity due to the coronavirus pandemic has also offered a ray of hope to the 38 million sufferers of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. Thirty years after research into the disease began, recent medical trials by non-profit drug developer IAVI and the Scripps Research Institute show that the novel messenger RNA vaccination technology developed for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab can help to generate the immune cells which are needed for antibody production. While researchers caution that trials are still in the preliminary stages and it is too early to extract conclusive data, the successful response was detected in no less than 47 out of 48 participants in the initial randomised trial. This response is enough to suggest that mRNA is sufficient to target and kill HIV and the technology could be utilised to produce a vaccine in the near future.

The frustration around the EU vaccine distribution is understandable, but it is crucial that the uproar does not drown out the positive progress in other areas. Lawmakers will need to separate the signal from the noise to ensure that the medical community is fully supported, both financially and publicly. The scientific breakthroughs in healthcare represent a much-need break in the clouds for patients to world over which cannot be easily dismissed.

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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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