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Challenges in developing therapies for Covid-19, Alternate view point



With over 170 countries around the globe in a race to develop the first vaccine for the coronavirus, the need for preventive and curative treatment for the virus that has been infecting millions of people and claiming several lives is the need of the hour. However, the path to developing a powerful vaccine for COVID-19 is not without challenges.

The coronavirus is an intelligent piece of natural genetic engineering and has a unique RNA with a proofreading mechanism. Coronaviruses are known to frequently combine and swap RNA with other coronaviruses and this recombination can lead to mutations, creating new, more deadly versions of the virus with a dangerous infection potential. Further recombination in RNA virus can evolve it into a deadly pathogen and with continuous mutations, it can become even more contagious. It is thought to be a chimera virus having recombined with either bat coronavirus or pangolin virus based on studies analyzing closely similar recombination sites and genetic similarity.

This recombination is a dangerous trait and has a considerable impact on humans as corona may gain virulence and drug resistance. Dr. Bette Korber, an HIV-researcher warns that the COVID-19 vaccines being currently developed may not be effective against the virus because the virus would probably mutate.

A rat race in developing a vaccine

Let’s take a critical review of the technologies being used to develop a treated for the virus:

Inactivated viral vaccine approach: The ICMR has been pushing for fast-track trials for inactivated virus-based vaccines. This is a dangerous step given that many people in India consider the ICMR a reputed organization. Inactivated viruses are generally considered safe as they cannot replicate.

Research was conducted on ferrets and nonhuman primates and a virus-like-particle vaccine on mice induced protection against the SARS-COV. However, the challenged animals exhibited an immunopathologic-type lung disease. This warns against rushing into an inactivated vaccine approach especially since novel coronavirus found to have 70% genetic similarity to the SARS-CoV virus with 96 percent similarity to a bat coronavirus.

Adeno Vector based Vaccine: Recent trials data from Oxford University, a leading player in advance stage of vaccine development produced mixed results. As per the findings of ex-professor at Harvard Medical School, all of the vaccinated monkeys treated with the Oxford vaccine became infected when challenged, as judged by recovery of virus genomic RNA from nasal secretions. There was no difference in the amount of viral RNA detected from this site in the vaccinated monkeys as compared to the unvaccinated animals. It is crystal clear that the vaccine did not provide sterilizing immunity to the virus challenge, the gold standard for any vaccine. It may provide partial protection.

Live-attenuated virus approach: Live virus vaccines deliver long term protection but often need extensive safety testing as recombination in viruses can create a new template for the infection. DNA vaccine candidates trigger relatively weak immune responses because the plasmids are not efficiently taken up by cells.

Drug Repurposing: Several doctors have advised against the use of repurposed drugs because of the grave side-effects. For example, both Remdesivir and Favipiravir are hepatotoxic. Also, the efficacy of repurposed drugs in treating the coronavirus is in the shrouds.

mRNA Vaccines: This is an experimental therapy that involves delivering messenger RNA to signal the production of necessary proteins in the human body to counter the virus. The challenges related to overcoming immune response and effectiveness in producing sufficient amounts of proteins are not well known.

Convalescent plasma (CP) therapy: CP therapy has been touted as an alternative therapy with effective action against COVID-19. However, the number of recovered patients from whom plasma can be harvested is not high enough. It’s also not exempt from the additional risks of hyper-immune attacks and transfusion based diseases.

The technical hurdles in the development of vaccines and the unpredictable risks like mutations and unknown long-term impacts associated with these approaches have made researchers take a look at the alternative therapies against the coronavirus.

Alternative approaches: sound or scam?

Patanjali was involved in the major fiasco recently with fraudulent claims that they have developed a formulation to cure the coronavirus and they would release the clinical research and trial data in a few days. Instead, they directly released their products Coronil claiming to have cured several people. Ayurvedic products are effective but not a cure for corona, they can supplement the allopathic therapy to relieve symptoms.

Let’s look at the other alternative approaches, some promising while others are fantasy tales fueling an agenda.

Nanoparticles: There have been several studies on metallic nanoparticles and their impact on the coronavirus. An Italian startup is conducting research using copper nanoparticles for disinfecting public places.

Bioavailable Zinc: The Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine is planning to go ahead with clinical trials for a Zinc Gluconate combination with vitamin C. Zinc is prescribed in combination with hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin. The institute claims better bioavailability of zinc and considers it a supplement to current medicinal drugs.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Chinese government is heavily promoting traditional Chinese medicine for treating COVID-19. Though experts cast doubt over the quality of the conducted trials because of the lack of clinical data to justify their claims.

Homeopathy products: The AYUSH Ministry in India has issued a recommendation to include homeopathic medicine Arsenicum album 30 as a prophylactic medicine against the infection. Being a pseudoscientific medical system, it’s difficult to consider Homeopathy as an alternate line of treatment for COVID-19.

Ancient science combined with Nanobiotechnology – a possible cure?

A patent-pending formulation based on the combination of bio-silver nanoparticles loaded with Cepharanthine (CEP) is currently being developed by scientists from QuickGun Lifescience.

They started researching scientific evidence related to available solutions and it was found that Cepharanthine is the most potent inhibitor in drug screening. The team claims a double attack strategy of targeting viral glycoproteins by both the ingredients to reduce viral load. Further, there is a coating of PEG to clear accumulation from the liver and spleen.

They selected two active ingredients that target the viral membrane–silver nanoparticles are known to bind the glycoprotein knobs in HIV and other viruses. The plant-derived alkaloid Cepharanthine (CEP) also targets the glycoprotein in the coronavirus and further prevents it from replicating. Both these ingredients target glycoprotein through different pathways disrupting the viral envelope and prevent the virus from replicating.

“COVID presents a new challenge to science which requires an interdisciplinary understanding to tackle it effectively. As a strategy to fight against the virus, the first line would be to strengthen our own innate immune response system. Amla juice helps in reinvigorating the immune system due to its high content of the bioavailable form of Vitamin C. We foresee Biosilver along with CEP or CBD-CEP formulation as an effective and important adjuvant with current allopathic therapy prescribed by Doctors to reduce the viral load and decrease the mortality rate”, quoted Subhramani Naidu, Promoter, QuickGun LifeScience.

Further, a provisional patent has been filed for a formulation of cannabidiol (CBD) and Cepharanthine (CEP) for synergistic action against COVID. CBD prevents the virus from attaching to cells by blocking ACE2 receptors and CEP binds to glycoprotein and prevents the virus from replicating. Cytokine storm is the major reason for mortality in COVID patients and both CBD and CEP have superior anti-inflammatory properties to reduce cytokine cascade. This is being considered as adjuvant therapy to treat COVID and reduce cytokine response. Being a plant-derived molecule, the product can be fast-tracked to market.

The team has backed its claims by presenting scientific evidence like invitro and invivo efficacy, safety studies of both bio-silver and CEP, individually tested by reputed institutes and research organizations. The product has been successfully functionalized and is currently undergoing invitro studies for efficacy against Tuberculosis.

The project is live on a US biotech accelerator platform MedStartr for crowdfunding, and has received initial funding commitment of $25,000. You can find more information about this research here.

Final thoughts

As for the general population, the best defense is strengthening the immune system rather than focusing on external medication. Vitamin C is a good immunity booster and Indian gooseberry (amla) is a good source of bioavailable Vitamin C. Further spices and herbs have antioxidants and immune-boosting properties and must be regularly consumed to keep oneself healthy.

The concept of QuickGun LifeScience is to reduce the viral load using phytochemicals so that natural body immune system can take over and subdue the minimized viral load. This will allow immune cells to retain memory against virus for long time. This mechanism is similar to vaccine. Additional active ingredients of CBD-THC combination reduce inflammation through the endocannabinoid system. Inflammation is the major cause of mortality in Covid. Thus, QuickGun LifeScience believes that pandemic can be ended without fast track vaccines and resorting to natural tweaking of human defense system to subdue virus.