COVID-19: 5 reasons to be cautiously hopeful
Written by Ana Sandoiu on March 21, 2020 - Fact checked by Isabel Godfrey
The death toll for COVID-19 is on the rise, and so is the total number of cases. In the context of this global pandemic, feeling overwhelmed by all the negative information is a natural response. But researchers are also hard at work trying to understand, treat, and prevent the new coronavirus. We take a look at some of their results.
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As of yesterday, the total number of deaths from COVID-19 across the world has surpassed 10,000.
Currently, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the globe stands at 244,000.
These numbers can induce restlessness and worry.
The importance of taking precautions and staying safe during this global pandemic cannot be overestimated, but it is also helpful to look at some emerging research that could pave the way for future treatment and prevention.
In this article, we round up some of this evidence, which has featured recently on Medical News Today.
Infection control measures work
Researchers in Hong Kong have evaluated the impact that the outbreak has had on 43 public hospitals there.
The numbers are encouraging: In the first 6 weeks since the start of the outbreak, 413 healthcare workers dealt with 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of these employees, 11 had unprotected exposure to the new coronavirus.
As a result of implementing best practices for infection control, none of the healthcare staff contracted the virus during the study period. Furthermore, no hospital-acquired infections occurred.
Dr. Vincent C.C. Cheng, from the Department of Microbiology at Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, and his colleagues conclude:
“Appropriate hospital infection control measures can prevent healthcare-associated transmission of the [new] coronavirus […] Vigilance in hand hygiene practice, wearing of surgical masks in the hospital, and appropriate use of personal protective equipment in patient care […] are the key infection control measures to prevent hospital transmission of the virus.”
Getting the virus may protect against reinfections
A study involving four rhesus macaques found that contracting SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — protected against future reinfections.
The scientists reinfected two of the four monkeys with the virus 28 days after the initial infection.
A total of “96 nasopharyngeal and anal swabs tested negative after the reexposure of SARS-CoV-2,” report the researchers. The euthanasia and necropsy of one of the two monkeys confirmed these results.
“Taken together, our results indicated that the primary SARS-CoV-2 infection could protect from subsequent exposures, which have […] vital implications for vaccine design [and disease prognosis],” conclude the authors of the study.
MNT contacted Martin Bachmann, a professor of vaccinology at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in the United Kingdom, on the broader subject of COVID-19 and building up immunity to the virus.
“I can tell you, if you got [COVID-19] and you got really sick, I am sure that will make an antibody response that will also last.”
– Prof. Martin Bachmann
Prof. Bachmann, who is also the head of the department of immunology at the University of Bern in Switzerland, continued: “But, if you have the virus and it only replicates a little and never really reaches the lymph nodes, then maybe you don’t really make [an antibody response], but then you have not really been sick. [Of] anyone who has been really sick, I would be surprised to find anyone who didn’t make an antibody response.”
A vaccine is being trialed, more underway
A trial is currently taking place to test a potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for the first time in humans.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have funded the trial, which is taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.
In the trial, 45 healthy volunteers will receive a vaccine that contains a segment of genetic code copied from SARS-CoV-2. As the vaccine does not contain the actual SARS-CoV-2, the participants will not develop COVID-19.
Government officials caution that it may take 12–18 months before the vaccine reaches the market and explain that the main purpose of this current trial is to make sure that there are no serious side effects.
However, many other efforts are underway for devising new vaccines. In this article, our research editor, Yella Hewings-Martin, Ph.D., rounded up several projects that identified a potential vaccine and therapy targets for SARS-CoV-2.
An old method could fight COVID-19
The researchers who authored the paper say, “Deployment of this option requires no research or development,” as the method has been around since the 1930s.
The method involves collecting blood from a person who has had the virus and recovered from it. Using the serum — the part that contains infection-fighting antibodies — researchers hope to be able to inject another person, thus either preventing an infection or helping to fight it off.
Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, and co-author of the new paper, says:
“It’s all doable — but to get it done, it requires effort, organization, resources… and people who have recovered from the disease who can donate the blood.”
Our immune system could defeat the virus
The patient was a 47-year-old woman who had contracted the virus in Wuhan, China, and the researchers examined her immune response in their effort to understand her recovery.
Prof. Katherine Kedzierska, Head of the Human T cell Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and her colleagues found an increase in immunoglobulin G — the most common type of antibody — in the woman’s blood samples. Additionally, they found an increase in immunoglobulin M.
The scientists also detected a high number of key immune cells, such as specialized helper T cells, killer T cells, and B cells, 7–9 days after symptom onset.
“This is an incredible step forward in understanding what drives recovery of COVID-19. People can use our methods to understand the immune responses in larger COVID-19 cohorts and also understand what’s lacking in those who have fatal outcomes.”
– Prof. Katherine Kedzierska