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Coronavirus: Ontario researchers race toward treatment, vaccine for COVID-19

Ontario researchers race toward treatment and vaccine for COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: It's all hands on deck amongst Ontario's research community to find treatments and ultimately a vaccine for COVID-19 as the pandemic worsens across Canada and the world. Travis Dhanraj reports.

It’s all hands on deck amongst Ontario’s research community to find treatments and ultimately a vaccine for COVID-19, and though both are likely months away, major progress is being made.

At Western University, researchers are looking at how the virus gets into a person’s cells. The coronavirus spike protein is found on a virus’s surface and binds to specific cell receptors, this process is the first in infection.

The team at Western is coupling spike proteins from SARS-CoV- 2 with proteins of different viruses that don’t harm the human body.

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“The idea is to train our immune system to recognize this spike protein. So when a person becomes infected, the body already knows how to recognize it and mount an attack,” said Stephen Barr, an associate professor at Western.

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The research may not only apply to a vaccine against COVID-19, but also drug treatments that block binding in the interim.

“We’re really trying to develop ways to prevent that interaction from happening,” he continued.

Barr and his colleagues said they are also using state of the art imaging equipment at the university to look at how the virus moves through the body.

“This will allow us to take a real close up view of this virus and try to identify an Achilles heel that we can exploit for drug and vaccine development.”

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Researchers with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, The University of Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton made a breakthrough in March isolating SARS-CoV- 2.

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Arinjay Banerjee, a post-doctoral researcher with McMaster’s Institute for Infectious Disease Research, said it’s a major step when it comes to clinical trials.

“You have to have the virus that’s causing the disease so you can challenge your vaccinated animals and see if the animal is protected. We can generate lots of genetic material from our virus, which is then used to validate diagnostic tests.”

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Research is also being done using recovered patients’ blood. Serum containing antibodies against viruses are developed when someone’s immune system fights an infection off.

Antibody therapy has been used on other viruses and now multiple studies are being done to see if similar therapies would work on neutralizing SARS-CoV- 2.

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“People have used serum from people who’ve recovered from Ebola to protect people who’ve gotten Ebola. But the timing of the treatment is critical. You have to catch the patient early on to be able to treat them with the antibodies,” said Banerjee.

The University Health Network (UHN) is looking into anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine and whether or not it could be used as a pre-exposure prophylaxis to protect frontline health care workers. In small studies the drug has proven to make symptoms including cough, fever and pneumonia dissipate faster.

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The UHN study is one of several Ontario studies being advanced by non-profit organization Clinical Trials Ontario.

The organization streamlines processes to make trials more timely, efficient and cost-effective.

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President and CEO, Susan Marlin told Global News Monday, “What we really focus on is offering an ethics review system that allows for this process to be undertaken over several research hospitals or universities in a very efficient way, so essentially, it’s done much quicker.”

HIV medications are also being looked at as a possible treatment in Ontario, according to Marlin.

A clinical trail is underway at St. Michael’s Hospital looking at the antiretroviral drugs lopinavir/ritonavir which has been sold under the brand name Kaletra.

In HIV patients, the drugs act to block an enzyme called protease which infected cells use to replicate. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the drug was not effective in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, however other research is being done to see if the combination can be used early on to prevent the SARS-CoV- 2 from spreading.

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