Finding Covid-19 treatments is key as world pins hope on a vaccine

A program to test therapeutic regimes in 3,000 patients is being rolled out in Africa ahead of an an anticipated Covid-19 vaccine.

02 November 2020 - 20:19
More than 1.6 million Africans have been infected with Covid-19, which has claimed 40,000 lives on the continent.
More than 1.6 million Africans have been infected with Covid-19, which has claimed 40,000 lives on the continent.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

While Africa and the world wait anxiously for a vaccine against Covid-19, a global medical coalition is pushing ahead treatments to cure the disease.

The Anticov trial, developed by a non-profit research organisation called the Drugs For Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), plans to test therapeutic regimes in 3,000 patients spread across 13 countries in Africa, said Dr Borna Nyaoke-Anoke, its senior clinical project manager in Kenya.

“We must identify early treatments that can prevent progression to severe disease,” said Nyaoke-Anoke.

Developed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the World Health Organisation, and five international research institutions in 2003, DNDi describes itself as a not-for-profit research organisation developing new treatments for neglected patients.

Speaking during a webinar on Monday on Africa's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Nyaoke-Anoke noted that while some 80% of people in Africa infected with Covid-19 had developed only mild symptoms, there was still no existing treatment for mild to moderate cases.

It was vital, she added, that whatever drugs — including vaccines — were developed would work.

“If we develop a drug in a high-income country, will it be applicable in a hospital in the DRC?”

If we develop a drug in a high-income country, will it be applicable in a hospital in the DRC?
Dr Borna Nyaoke-Anoke, senior clinical project manager, Drugs For Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi)

With the global race to develop a vaccine in full swing, the webinar's panellists voiced concerns that Africa and the rest of the developing world could be left out on the cold when a vaccine does become available.

“History must not repeat itself,” said keynote speaker Dr John Nkengasong, director, Africa CDC, noting that 12m people in Africa had died of Aids in the decade after 1995 as a result of reduced access to HIV drugs on the continent.

“We need a strategy to ensure Africa's access to a vaccine supply.

To vaccinate Africa's population of around 1.2bn people would require roughly 1.5bn doses and a purchase and delivery cost of about $10m-$15m, he added.

“We have a big gap there to finance,” he said.

Sounding a note of caution, Prof Helen Rees, executive director of Wits University's Reproductive Health and HIV Institute​, said any vaccine is likely to be in short supply when it becomes available.

“We will not have enough,” she said.

There was also the perennial question of whether any vaccine would be safe and effective.

“In some vaccines, this is not the case,” she said. “Safety and effectiveness vary.”

While Covid-19 mortality rates are lower than with diseases such as ebola, Rees said there was no question of letting the virus spread through populations as many people would get ill and likely require hospitalisation.

“The burden it would impose would be overwhelming.”

This virus can deceive you that you have conquered it
Dr John Nkengasong, director, Africa CDC

Africa had recorded 43,000 Covid-19 deaths and 1.4m recoveries out of 1.7m recorded cases.

While Africa had so far been spared the dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases seen in the US and Europe as a second waves takes hold, the panel issued stark warnings that Africa could be next if people did not abide by the now-standard safety protocols of wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.

Around 9,000 new cases were being reported every day — an “uptick” that authorities needed to “take seriously”, said Nkengasong.

He called on Africa's governments to carry the cost of supplying masks to their populations so that those earning $1 a day did not have to make the choice between buying food and having a mask.

He also warned there was no room for complacency or prevention fatigue.

“We need to be extremely cautious,” he said. “This virus can deceive you that you have conquered it. Then it comes back very quickly.”

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