Treatments in weeks, not months: scientists develop ambitious pandemic response plan




An international team of scientists have created a plan for an accelerated pipeline to develop drug cocktails to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The pipeline could speed up new and better treatments that newly diagnosed and recently exposed people could take at home to prevent serious illness.

The “proactive drug development strategy” could also offer a first line of defense against future pandemics, the researchers say. The approach would allow scientists to be prepared with an arsenal of drugs that could be quickly transferred to clinical trials when a dangerous new infection emerges, whether it’s a coronavirus or another pathogen. The goal: to make effective treatments available in weeks, not months or years.

“We need to proactively develop drug cocktails against families of viruses as a whole – for example, all coronaviruses – to be ready on day one if a new virus or variant appears. The cocktail should be inexpensive, easy to transport and dispense, and easy to self-administer, so available to people around the world, ”said researcher Judith M. White, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Virginia. “We hope that this concept of ‘smart drug cocktails’ – smart because of the choice of drugs to be tested and the computer modeling of their efficacy in humans – will form the basis of a robust and coordinated effort against coronaviruses and other pathogenic viruses, such as Zika and Lassa fever viruses, to name a few.

Rapid, safe and efficient response in the event of a pandemic

The new strategy comes from White, from the departments of Cell Biology and Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology at AVU; and colleagues in Seattle, the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; the University of Maryland; and MRI Global, as well as collaborators in Estonia, Finland and Norway. Scientists believe prioritizing the development of drug cocktails – treatments that combine two or more drugs – would reduce the burden on health systems and help prevent the spread of disease by limiting a virus’s ability to adapt. to its guests. This type of combined approach is already the norm for the treatment of viruses such as HIV.

The researchers present a five-point plan to speed up the identification and administration of effective drug cocktails:

  • Use medications that people might take at home, whether by mouth or inhalation, after exposure or when symptoms first appear.
  • Focus on drug combinations, rather than individual drugs, to reduce the risk of viruses becoming resistant to drugs.
  • Prioritize drugs that are already approved or in advanced clinical trials, to speed up the speed with which their safety and efficacy can be ensured.
  • Focus on medications that can be given to people in doses that will produce antiviral effects without toxic side effects.
  • Use advanced computer models to identify useful drug combinations and accelerate development.

To demonstrate the potential of computer modeling for this purpose, Dr Joshua T. Schiffer of Fred Hutch developed a model to assess the potential clinical efficacy of drug pairs for the treatment of COVID-19. The researchers say the combination of drugs could create more effective treatments than individual drugs alone. Identifying drugs with this kind of “synergy,” they say, could potentially turn two drugs with modest benefits into one strong treatment.

“Models that integrate both the properties of the drugs and the biology of the virus spreading against an immune response can be used to identify the best way to dose promising treatments,” said Schiffer. “These models suggest that the strategic combination of drugs can add substantial benefits.”




Scientists stress that better treatments for COVID-19 will not supplant the need for vaccination and complement existing strategies. But they say their strategy could lead to better outcomes for patients who contract COVID-19 – or the next dangerous virus waiting behind the scenes.

“Having readily deployable, easy-to-administer, and inexpensive drug cocktails on the shelves when a new virus outbreak occurs would save time between virus discovery and development and the deployment of drug-dependent countermeasures. sequence like vaccines and synthetic drugs, and therefore could blunt the initial stages of an epidemic, ”White said.

Published results

The researchers described their treatment development strategy in a peer-reviewed article published in the scientific journal mBio. The research team consisted of White, Schiffer, Rachel A. Bender Ignacio, Shuang Xu, Denis Kainov, Aleksandr Ianevski, Tero Aittokallio, Matthew Frieman, Gene G. Olinger, and Stephen J. Polyak.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, grants AI114776, AI121129, and K23AI129659; Estonian Research Council, grant MOBTT39; the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation; and the Washington Research Foundation.

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