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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.

April 13, 2020 by Ansley Kahn
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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) began enrolling patients in a study to test hydroxychloroquine—a malaria drug also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus—as a potential therapy for patients hospitalized with symptomatic COVID-19. Although President Trump has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a “game-changer” treatment in combating the novel coronavirus, the drug has yet to be proven safe and effective as a COVID-19 therapy in a clinical trial. This NIH-funded trial is one of 18 trials in the United States seeking to determine if hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19. The US Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization allowing doctors to prescribe hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat COVID-19—leading to a spike in demand and causing shortages.

US researchers began clinical trials of a second experimental COVID-19 vaccine that uses a skin-deep shot instead of the usual deeper injection. This study is evaluating if two doses of Inovio Pharmaceuticals’ vaccine candidate is safe enough for efficacy larger tests. The Inovio vaccine works by packaging a section of the virus’ code inside synthetic DNA which is then injected into the skin. The cells act a mini factory, producing harmless protein copies which prompt the immune system to make protective antibodies against them should the real virus ever come along. After the injection, researchers use a device to give the injection site an electrical zap to help the vaccine more easily penetrate and get to work. This vaccine—like the NIH and Moderna’s vaccine candidate—is not made using the actual virus, meaning there’s no chance of getting infected from the vaccine and that it is able to be produced more quickly than traditional vaccines.

Australian researchers have published a study showing ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat parasitic infections, can also kill coronavirus in a laboratory setting in under 48 hours. Research was carried out on cell cultures in the lab, which does not always translate to effectiveness in people who have contracted the infection. The exact manner in which the drug kills the virus is unknown, but researchers say it was likely done by "dampening down" the ability of host cells to clear the drug. Ivermectin has already been studied and approved to treat other conditions, offering an advantage over new drug development—a long process that typically involves many years of studying safety and efficacy before being able to reach human patients. Further research is needed to determine whether the drug could be used to treat COVID-19.

About the author

Ansley KahnGHTC

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