As South Africa braces for the peak of Covid-19 infections, scientists across the globe continue their search for answers to the many questions that remain.
Thousands of hypotheses are being tested in the hopes of finding better forms of protection, treatment and, ultimately, the eradication of this virus that’s holding the world hostage.
We look at five current studies that may shed more light on the pandemic.
1. 1. Let’s hear it for the llamas
While World Health Organization (WHO) experts were on a mission to China to identify the animal source of the virus, a group of United Kingdom scientists has been focusing on one particular animal that could hold the answers to treating Covid-19: a llama named Fifi.
Researchers have used her specially evolved antibodies to make an immune-boosting therapy. A llama’s antibodies are smaller and have a simpler structure than the ones we have, and this makes it easier to fiddle with them in a lab.
The re-engineered part of the llama antibody is referred to as a nanobody, and scientists have been creating nanobodies that, in a lab at least, kill the live virus extremely well. The nanobodies bind tightly to the virus and prevent it from invading human cells, the BBC reports.
These developments where published in the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
2. 2. In search of superspreaders
Building on emerging evidence that some Covid-19 patients infect many others, but most don’t spread the virus at all, scientists are now trying to find out how and where this spread happens.
The important questions are: who are these superspreaders? When does superspreading occur? And where?
Superspreading has an upside. “It bodes well for control,” Dr Kirstin Nelson, an assistant professor at Emory University in the US, told The New York Times.
This is because if transmissions happen in only certain situations, it’s possible to come up with strategies to stop those situations from happening without imposing crippling lockdowns that many countries, including SA, are experiencing.
3. 3. Up in the air
WHO has updated its guidelines with regards to airborne transmission of Covid-19 but it has not changed much, except to say more research is urgently needed.
Airborne transmission means the virus can spread through particles known as aerosols even after an infected person has moved on.
WHO previously noted that this kind of transmission was a concern only in hospital settings. However, it now acknowledges that reports of outbreaks in airborne transmission of Covid-19 in crowded, indoor locations with poor ventilation could also be a problem.
Its report states, “Outside of medical facilities, some outbreak reports related to indoor crowded spaces have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, combined with droplet transmission, for example, during choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes. In these events, short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out.”
Therefore it’s important to wear masks.
4. 4. Success in solidarity
The success of the Recovery clinical trial in the UK with the breakthrough drug dexamethasone has given hope to other studies looking for treatment options.
WHO launched an international clinical trial called Solidarity to speed up the testing of different drugs to find evidence-based treatments for Covid-19. The drugs being used in the trial include remdesivir, which was tested in 2019 during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; an HIV treatment drug called lopinavir/ritonavir; and chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine used to treat malaria.
5. 5. South Africa leads the way
The first clinical trial in Africa for a Covid-19 vaccine is underway. The Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine Vida-trial is being led by Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University and director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) vaccines and infectious diseases analytics research unit (Vida).
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Prof Madhi explained that the trial will have 2 000 participants, half of whom will receive the vaccine and the other half will receive a placebo. Scientists hope the vaccination will enable the human body to recognise and develop an immune response to stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering human cells and causing Covid-19.
The trials are being conducted in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute in the UK and it’s hoped that our participation will ensure we have access to a vaccine when it goes into production.
The question of equitable access to a vaccine – that is poor, developing countries not being pushed out by rich ones – has not been settled and remains a “global debate”.