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COVID-19 drug trials start Thursday

A UBC researcher is part of the team developing the virus-blocking drug
Photo: Laboratory research/Shutterstock

VANCOUVER – Clinical trials on a drug to block the COVID-19 virus will start April 9 at 10 centres in Europe, the University of B.C. researcher leading the work said April 8.

“We will understand it. By summer, we might have drugs, which work. It’s a unique time. We will live through it,” said UBC Life Sciences Institute director Dr. Josef Penninger.

But, he warned, a vaccine against the virus could be a year to 18 months away.

“The team’s findings hold promise of an early vaccine for COVID-19,” Penninger said.

Penninger’s team said last week it had found a trial drug that blocks the cellular door the virus uses to infect people with COVID-19.

“We trick the virus and it cannot infect us anymore,” Penninger said in a video conference call hosted by UBC journalism Prof May Lynn Young.

He said a global team’s work provides new insights into the  SARS-CoV-2 virus and its interactions on a cellular level, as well as how the virus can infect blood vessels and kidneys.

He said its spread in the body can cause multi-organ failures.

“Scientists from around the world and from UBC are working on new testing and treatments,” he said.

“This is not a good virus,” he said. “We should fear it.”

He added, “We can understand it. Because we can understand it, we can do something about it.”

Penninger said the virus causing COVID-19 is a close sibling to the first SARS virus. He said earlier research has helped his team to rapidly identify ACE2 as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2, which explains a lot about the disease.

“The entry gate is the same,” Penninger said.

Using engineered replicas of human blood vessels and kidneys  – “organoids” grown from human stem cells – the researchers demonstrated the virus can directly infect and duplicate itself in such tissues.

Penninger’s team’s findings were published in the science journal Cell April 3

The study has involved researchers from Vancouver, Toronto, Spain and Sweden.

The clinical trials will start in Germany, Denmark and Austria. The trials will include 200 people with severe cases (but not late stages) and last for seven days.

“The idea is that we clinically prevent them from going into the late stages and, hopefully, prevent them from dying,” Penninger said.

“We need a vaccine but people should not bring up their hopes,” he cautioned.

Penninger explained that cell membrane-surface protein ACE2 plays a key role in the outbreak.

In earlier work, Penninger and colleagues at the University of Toronto and the Institute of Molecular Biology in Vienna identified ACE2 as the key receptor for SARS, the viral respiratory illness recognized as a global threat in 2003.

What the researchers found through cell cultures is that the drug inhibited the coronavirus load. What can be drawn from that, they said, is key information on the disease’s development and that severe cases of COVID-19 can lead to multi-organ failure and cardiovascular damage.

“The entry gate is the same,” Penninger said.

He said it remains unknown why the virus affects some and not others.

“That’s the $1 million question,” he said. “No one understands. Some people recover; some fall into severe lung disease.”

Further, Penninger cautioned, people should be ready to deal with the virus for a long time to come as outbreaks come up.

“I hope I’m wrong.”

Research by Penninger’s team was supported in part by the Canadian federal government through emergency funding focused on accelerating the development, testing and implementation of measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

U.S. President Donald Trump has continued to claim anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat the virus.

 It’s a claim U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci has already discounted as not tested – to Trump’s displeasure. It has since been revealed the president has financial connections to the drug’s producer.

Penninger, however, backs Fauci.

“There is a trial in China which shows it does not work,” Penninger said.

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