COVID-19: These are the great scientific advances to defeat the pandemic

It has been 10 months since the first cases of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, were detected. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has ‘unleashed’ itself throughout the world.

Although containment measures are generally exhausting, in terms of ‘scientific time’, the time frame is still extremely short. However, experts have made significant progress against the disease.

The pandemic was declared just six months ago. Today it has several vaccine proposals that are in the defining stages for certification by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In this regard, BBC Mundo made a report in which it lists part of the fundamental scientific advances to defeat the pandemic. Today, the coronavirus still generates a strong impact on people’s health and, up to now, it adds almost 32 million infections and close to a million deaths.

“Although it seems like an eternity, it is very little time for big developments in research, at least from a technical point of view”. This is what Begoña Sanz and Gorka Larrinaga, professors at the Department of Human Physiology at the University of the Basque Country, told BBC Mundo.

For his part, Miguel Pita, Phd. in genetics and cell biology, maintains that the advances made “in the field of research are a great stimulus in different fields”, with “many leading and revolutionary changes”.

These advances have been achieved, to a large extent, by the pressures generated by the profound social, economic and health crises caused by the pandemic. This means that the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has million-dollar investments and the tireless work of thousands of scientists.

For this reason, this global campaign to find the “cure” has at least seven important aspects reached by science, according to different specialists.

Team collaboration

“The coronavirus has involved the collaboration of many teams, and that is very good news”, says Dr. Pita, who is also a professor and researcher in genetics at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

“Researchers tend to be very collaborative”, he added. “But the pandemic is an additional call and the results have been made available very quickly to all groups”.

To this, professors Sanz and Larrinaga said that another point that adds up is, “the pressure exerted by the extremely serious health and socioeconomic situation in the world. The result is the collaboration of research faculties, groups and centers” as well as “the creation of collaborative networks”.

COVID-19 sequencing

One of these areas of international scientific collaboration is also one that is registering “great progress”, explains Pita.

“In the field of bioinformatics there is great news. The study of the sequences of the genetic material of each virus that infects a person allows us to see its evolution over the generations”, says the doctor.

China reported the existence of the new coronavirus to the WHO at the end of December 2019. Since then, researchers have recorded some 12,000 mutations in the virus genome, according to the journal Nature.

On this, Pita argues that “the scientific community has put its best resources at the service of this research. That greatly increases the computational power and we have constant reviews of the genetic changes of the coronavirus”.

Ultra-fast diagnosis

One of the great challenges of COVID-19 has been to detect the people who are infected in order to isolate them and thus better contain the contagion.

“The development of diagnostic techniques is very powerful using genetic editing tools, a very important element of genetics today”, said Pita.

The researcher gives two examples that have been shown to be effective and will soon be available for “ultra-fast” diagnoses.

On the one hand, he mentions diagnostic techniques that are “somewhat less sensitive” than the so-called PCR or swab test. However, they have the advantage of offering immediate results.

On the other hand — he adds — there are “differential diagnostic techniques to distinguish between SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses. These are of considerable importance for the correct diagnosis of patients and, therefore, for the choice of treatment”.

Historic vaccine

The fact that this coronavirus is new means that there are still many gaps of knowledge surrounding it. But, there is something that specialists are clear about: the only way to achieve ‘herd immunity’ is with a vaccine.

“Of course, the first great advance will be to obtain an effective and safe vaccine that can be administered to the population in a massive way”, say Sanz and Larrinaga.

They add that, “if, as was said from the WHO, this happens in 2022, although it may seem distant, it would be an enormous success in the context of the time it has taken to obtain other vaccines and being able to bring them to a large part of the world population”.

Indeed, the usual timeframe for vaccine development is 15 to 20 years, but today it could be reduced to a year, perhaps a year and a half.

This is stated by a study published last August by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, for its acronym in English) and led by Paul Offit, a US immunologist famous for having co-created a vaccine against rotavirus. In his view, the vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is going at a “devilish speed”.

But what is new is not only in the ‘time things take so as to have a vaccine’, but also in the different methodologies used for its design, “some of them with characteristics that had never been considered”, says Pita.

“They are vaccines that, if proven effective, the industrial production process would be faster than in vaccines with classic designs, something very useful in a situation like the current one”, he adds.

COVID-19 Vaccines that show signs of promise

In addition to the Sputnik V vaccines from Russia, Soberana I from Cuba, and the Ad5-nCOV from China, which already have certifications in their countries and could go on the market before December, the BBC adds five other vaccine projects that have shown to have “promising breakthroughs” using two innovative strategies.

According to a study led by Offit, two ‘methodologies of development’ are being used for the other five vaccines that are seeking to be developed.

On the one hand, there are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, which “have never been used commercially to prevent infections”, states the study. Such is the case of those that are designing the companies Pfizer and BioNTech together, and that of Moderna.

The other methodology is based on the use of a family of genetically modified common cold viruses. Examples of these are the vaccines in which the University of Oxford works with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

“Similar to mRNA vaccines, there are no commercially available vaccines to prevent human disease using this strategy. Rather, its clinical use has been limited to a licensed vaccine against animal rabies”, says the study published in JAMA.

According to Offit and the other authors, various factors such as “the tragic nature of an ongoing pandemic have created a fertile breeding ground for innovation”.

“Although the ultimate success of a vaccine candidate or candidates is unknown, it is likely that the changes in the field of vaccination brought about by these demanding circumstances are here to stay”, adds Offit’s study.

Other types of treatments

In addition to racing against time to create a vaccine, researchers are working on developing treatments for COVID-19 patients.

For example, Sanz and Larrinaga published an article on the site The Conversation where they mention “another type of treatment that could be useful in patients with COVID-19 to avoid reaching the most critical stage of the disease”.

“It is about giving patients the protein that the virus binds to in order to penetrate the cell. The protein is dissolved in the plasma and, if the virus binds to it instead of to the one found in the cells, then it does not invade more tissues and we prevent the severity of the disease”, they told the BBC.

In other words, the strategy is to “cheat” the coronavirus. According to Sanz and Larrinaga, “this method, which is in phase 2 of experimentation, could open a new field in the treatment of other viral diseases, not just COVID-19”.

“Another great advance, which is not directly related to the research we do in our laboratories but which is fundamental for the future, is that we have managed to introduce certain hygiene and prevention habits into the culture of our citizens that serve to contain this and other epidemics caused by viruses”, add the professors.

Such is the case of the use of masks in crowded areas in times of epidemic, “something that is common to see in large cities in Asian countries”.

Another is “to avoid going to places of concentration of people and closed spaces when one is with a huge congestion or flu-like symptoms”.

In fact, studies in different countries are already showing that the measures taken to prevent contagion have made the season of respiratory and viral diseases less extended and deadly.

For example, a research published last August in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) analyzed data on colds, flu and bronchitis from 500 clinics in England and found that, on average, there were nine times fewer cases recorded than in the same period in the five previous years.

Importance of science so as to curb COVID-19

For Mercedes Jiménez Sarmiento, biochemist at the Margarita Salas Center for Biological Research in Spain, “a profound change as a result of the pandemic is that society has understood that the solution passes through science”.

Speaking to the BBC, she maintained that citizens “have wanted to know about health and science, and have done so directly from the experts. These, in turn, strive to better communicate science due to the demand for quality information from journalists and from society”.

Jiménez Sarmiento emphasizes that “communicating science is not easy”. “They are contents that are complex with specific language. Also, they advance slowly and on often non-obvious evidence that is modified as new proofs appear. That is difficult to accept”.

For this reason, “it has been a great mutual advance of science and society together, because now they are closer than ever and must be supported”.

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