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In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

March 31, 2020 by Ansley Kahn

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Scientists studying the genetic code of the novel coronavirus have determined it is not mutating quickly, suggesting the virus is less likely to become more dangerous as it spreads. Although all viruses evolve over time, accumulating mutations as they replicate inside a host’s cells and spread through a population, scientists say there is no evidence that some strains of the new coronavirus are deadlier than others. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are now studying more than 1,000 samples of the virus and have noted only four to ten genetic differences between the strains that have infected people in the United States and the original virus that spread in Wuhan. This represents hope for researchers working to create a long-lasting vaccine against the pathogen. Several vaccines are currently in development, but experts posit it could be at least a year to 18 months before one becomes available.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it is making it easier for doctors to try an experimental treatment for seriously ill COVID-19 patients that uses plasma from people who have had the disease and recovered. Though there is currently little evidence this treatment works in people infected with the novel coronavirus, the approach has recently been used with some effectiveness to treat patients with SARS and Ebola. The idea is that so-called convalescent plasma taken from donors recovering from infection will contain antibodies to the virus that can be used to treat other patients. There are risks with this approach, the worst being it could make the patient sicker—a response known as antibody-dependent enhancement where the virus is actually helped to proliferate by a patient's own immune system. The FDA will still require doctors to seek approval to use the treatment for individual patients, but they can receive authorization in less than four hours via phone call.

The FDA has granted emergency use authorization for a rapid COVID-19 test on the GeneXpert platform, a widely used tool for tuberculosis diagnostic, which could facilitate increased testing capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). There are more than 23,000 of the devices worldwide, which are produced by Cepheid, including an estimated 7,000–10,000 across Africa, Latin America, and South-East Asia. The tool can process nose swab samples in only 45 minutes and perform up to 96 tests in 24 hours. GeneXpert tests are automated, point-of-care devices which allow healthcare facilities to perform the test in-house without having to send samples off to a lab, allowing for real-time management of patients being evaluated for admission to facilities. Advocates are calling on Cepheid to reduce the price of test cartridges from US$20 to $5 to make them more affordable in LMICs.

About the author

Ansley KahnGHTC

Ansley Kahn is a senior program assistant at GHTC who supports GHTC's communications and member engagement activities.