There are many types of medicines being used in China, and some are being tested in research studies to try to find the “magic bullet” treatment to slow the killing. The World Health Organization is similarly concerned and conferring with experts to prioritize among different potential treatments. Admirably, as word spread about this ailment governments and vaccine manufacturers across the world have sprung into action.
The problem is, there is no such thing as fast and easy vaccine development. It takes time and precision. By the time we have an effective, fully tested vaccine, we frequently have moved on to the next infectious disease crisis. The only reason we had vaccines to test during the 2014-16 and 2018-20 Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo is we had been studying vaccines against Ebola for four decades. We have known about 2019-nCoV for mere weeks.
At a time like this, we need to also consider more general approaches that could be useful, before we can determine the precise treatment measures. As we saw with Ebola, even providing basic supportive care could be life-saving. As many well-intentioned scientists try to unlock the secrets of 2019-nCoV, we need to step back and adopt a similar view — are there less precise medical activities that could make a difference? While precision can certainly yield benefits, it is not necessarily the only path we should be following. As people die, and the illness spreads, our search for that silver bullet should not be standing in the way of our taking a more general approach.
Until we find the “magic bullet,” there are several types of “shotgun” approaches that could be applied. One to consider is to ask recovered patients to donate plasma that could be used as a potential therapy for the most severely ill. This was one of the first measures that was attempted for Ebola and it has been used for decades with new infectious diseases.
Another potential option being considered includes using drugs that have been considered for the treatment of other coronaviruses that caused severe disease, such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Use of such countermeasures is, appropriately so, being considered within the framework of scientific studies. Otherwise we won’t really know what helps and what potentially causes harm.
Another innovative, general approach was developed by a California company, ExThera Medical Corporation. That approach is designed to filter out pathogens circulating in the bloodstream. It does not discriminate between pathogens, but filters them out based on receptors on the pathogen’s surface. Whether it might work for coronaviruses is unknown, and may depend on how much of the disease severity is related to organisms in the bloodstream versus organisms in the lung.
There are likely other types of general approaches that could be useful. Certainly, gaining a better understanding from physicians in China regarding their observations, and what basic treatments, such as fluids, ventilator management, etc., appear beneficial or harmful is key, because it may take some time for the “magic bullets” to catch up.
The patients deserve that, whether they are in Wuhan, Singapore or Chicago.
Mark Kortepeter is chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board at Integrum Scientifics and author of “Inside the Hot Zone: a Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.