Fighting a virus with a virus - could bacteriophages help eliminate Covid-19 deaths?

  • Severe Covid-19 can lead to secondary bacterial infections which attack the lungs.
  • Bacteriophages are viruses used to attack bacteria in some bacterial infections.
  • Researchers suggest this therapy could help reduce Covid-19-related respiratory and sepsis deaths.

As Covid-19 sweeps across the globe, respiratory failure is responsible for many deaths. Fluid builds up in the lungs and people succumb, unable to breathe.

But now, new peer-reviewed research published in the journal PHAGE: Therapy, Application and Research, explores the possibility that the bacteria causing fluid build-up in the lungs can be fought and reduced through bacteriophages.

What is a bacteriophage?

A bacteriophage is a type of virus that infects and eradicates bacteria. The word "bacteriophage" literally means "bacteria eater". When bacteria are infected with bacteriophages, the bacteriophages take over the cellular machinery of the bacteria to avoid them from reproducing.

Instead, the cell is now forced to produce viral components, which then continue to "eat" bacteria as they replicate. They are often used alone or with antibiotics to treat some bacterial infections.

But what do bacteria have to do with a virus?

We know that people get Covid-19 when the virus called SARS-CoV-2 enters the body and starts infecting various cells. It can happen in the lungs, but also in the nerves and digestive system, which explains why people experience various symptoms such as diarrhoea, headaches, and even stroke and confusion.

The lungs are, however, the organs that are most affected, causing major illness and even death. When the virus causes the body to become sick, various cells in the lungs die and are taken over by the virus. This causes debris build-up, which harbours bacteria, according to the researchers.

These bacteria then cause the innate immune system to produce even more inflammatory bacteria in the lungs, which causes the immune system to respond and possibly interact with the virus.

As the process accelerates, the virus continues to attack the lung cells, creating even more bacteria that can cause fluid build-up – which is the reason why people with severe Covid-19 often have to be intubated.

These bacteria can even cause sepsis, which can lead to organ failure. According to the study, a recent review suggests that bacterial infections Acinetobacter baumannii and Klebsiella pneumoniae have been documented in Covid-19 patients, especially among those who were in ICU.

The researchers then suggested that bacteriophages might target this bacterial build-up and alleviate death from fluid and sepsis.

Could bacteriophages be a potential treatment?

Even though the use of bacteriophages against bacterial infections has only been rediscovered recently, the study authors state they were always successfully used as tools at molecular level.

They state a technique called "phage display" could have the potential to quickly produce antibodies. This was used in the treatment of MERS, another disease that was caused by a coronavirus.

The researchers write that they suggest a series of clinical trials using a cocktail of bacteriophages that will help target the main species of bacteria that cause respiratory problems. They also mention phage display could be used to create synthetic SARS-CoV-2 antibodies to fight early infection since antibody treatment is something that is already being investigated.

According to the researchers, bacteriophage treatment can be developed quickly and cheaply, should a clinical trial be successful.

READ | All about dexamethasone, which researchers say is a 'breakthrough' Covid-19 treatment

READ | Covid-19 damages lungs differently from the flu

READ | What the lungs of Covid-19 patients can tell us about the virus 

Image credit: Pexels

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