The European Medicines Agency predicted that there could be drugs to treat the new coronavirus in the next few months. The organization added that a vaccine might be approved in early 2021.
Dr. Marco Cavaleri heads the European regulator's vaccines department. He said Thursday that approving medicines to treat COVID-19 might be possible "before the summer" noting several current clinical trials.
A recent study in the United States suggested that the drug remdesivir could help patients recover from the coronavirus faster. Patients who received remdesivir recovered on average four days earlier than those who got the usual care. Earlier, animal studies showed remdesivir was effective against SARS and MERS, two diseases also caused by coronaviruses. It helped prevent infection and some symptoms when given early enough in the disease process.
In France, a group of hospitals reported success with use of another drug, Actemra, against COVID-19. In a study of 129 coronavirus patients, 65 were treated with the drug while the other patients received the usual care. The doctors did not release details, but said they were preparing to publish results. Actemra is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.
Doctors around the world are also trying a treatment for infections that is about 100 years old: giving blood plasma from recovered patients to sick ones. Plasma is the yellowish liquid part of blood. The blood from former patients is filled with protein molecules that fight infection. These molecules can help survivors defeat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Developing a vaccine
On Monday, the World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there are around seven or eight "top" candidates for a vaccine to combat COVID-19. He added work on the vaccines is being accelerated and helped with an additional $8 billion by 40 countries.
It usually takes years to develop a vaccine. But Cavaleri said that if some of the vaccines already being tested prove to be effective, they could be approved as early as the beginning of next year.
Cavaleri cautioned, however, that many experimental vaccines never make it to the end and that there are often delays.
"But we can see the possibility that if everything goes as planned, vaccines could be approved a year from now," he said.
Some experts have proposed cancelling the requirement for large, extended clinical trials. But, Cavaleri said that was not currently being considered.
He said that could change if the situation worsened. "Things may evolve as the pandemic will evolve and we will see if we need to do something else," Cavaleri said.
Some officials have warned that a vaccine for COVID-19 might never be found. They note that previous attempts to develop a vaccine against related coronaviruses like SARS and MERS have all failed. But Cavaleri believes that a vaccine could be discovered with new technologies being tried around the world.
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, the chair of the African Union, said a vaccine "is our best hope of ending this pandemic."
On Thursday, he joined more than 140 world leaders and health experts calling on all countries to unite behind a "people's vaccine" against COVID-19. They asked that the vaccine be available to anyone around the world at no cost.
I'm Jonathan Evans.