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COVID-19 drug trials start Thursday

Don’t expect a vaccine for up to 18 months: UBC researcher
ubc-life-sciences-institute-director-dr-josef-penninger
UBC Life Sciences Institute director Dr. Josef Penninger during a Zoom meeting. Screenshot

Clinical trials on a drug to block the COVID-19 virus will start April 9 at 10 centres in Europe, the University of B.C. researcher leading the work said April 8.

“We will understand it. By summer, we might have drugs, which work. It’s a unique time. We will live through it,” said UBC Life Sciences Institute director Dr. Josef Penninger.

But, he warned, a vaccine against the virus could be a year to 18 months away.

“The team’s findings hold promise of an early vaccine for COVID-19,” Penninger said.

Penninger’s team said last week it had found a trial drug that blocks the cellular door the virus uses to infect people with COVID-19.

“We trick the virus and it cannot infect us anymore,” Penninger said.

He said a global team’s work provides new insights into the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its interactions on a cellular level, as well as how the virus can infect blood vessels and kidneys.

Penninger said the virus causing COVID-19 is a close sibling to the first SARS virus. He said earlier research has helped his team to rapidly identify ACE2 as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2, which explains a lot about the disease.

Using engineered replicas of human blood vessels and kidneys—“organoids” grown from human stem cells—the researchers demonstrated the virus can directly infect and duplicate itself in such tissues.

Penninger’s team’s findings were published in the science journal Cell on April 3. The study has involved researchers from Vancouver, Toronto, Spain and Sweden.

The clinical trials will start in Germany and Austria.

Penninger explained that cell membrane-surface protein ACE2 plays a key role in the outbreak.

In earlier work, Penninger and colleagues at the University of Toronto and the Institute of Molecular Biology in Vienna identified ACE2 as the key receptor for SARS, the viral respiratory illness recognized as a global threat in 2003.

What the researchers found through cell cultures is that the drug inhibited the coronavirus load. What can be drawn from that, they said, is key information on the disease’s development and that severe cases of COVID-19 can lead to multi-organ failure and cardiovascular damage.

“The entry gate is the same,” Penninger said.

Research by Penninger’s team was supported in part by the Canadian federal government through emergency funding focused on accelerating the development, testing and implementation of measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.




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