Early detection and finding drugs to reduce Covid-19’s deadliness a priority as experts say vaccine could be years away.
Australian researchers are “a few weeks” from concluding clinical trials of drugs to reduce the deadliness of the coronavirus by early diagnosis and treatment.
The projects underline the strong medical opinion that a Covid-19 vaccine is several months or even years away.
While vaccine research continues, greater emphasis now is on boosting detection and treatment in the quest to save lives.
In addition there will be trials to evaluate the validity of so-called herd immunity in which individuals’ resistance to the virus is spread.
“I am actually quite optimistic we will have results at least – whether the results are good or not so good – from many clinical trials in the next few weeks,” said Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.
Lewin also is research leader for combined university efforts under the banner of the Australian Partnership for Pandemic Preparedness for Infectious Diseases (APPPID).
“The timeline for antiviral drugs and knowing whether they work or not is much shorter than for vaccines,” Lewin told reporters in Melbourne on Monday.
“Because these studies are using existing drugs, so we know their safety, we know how to use them. We just don’t know if they lead to clinical benefit.”
The researchers are hoping to find procedures for early detection of Covid-19, particularly in aged care homes which house those most vulnerable to the infections.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Monday the federal government would provide $3m for research into treatments and diagnosis.
Sydney University would get $1m of that for a lead project into the use of CT scanning to help diagnose patients who might otherwise have to go to intensive care units of hospitals.
“This will allow for early treatment, better treatment, better recovery and better outcomes,” Hunt said.
The remaining $2m would go towards projects headed by the Doherty Institute to produce early, rapid diagnosis of infections in age care accommodation.
Hunt praised the public for staying at home over the weekend, saying he had figures showing transport traffic on Good Friday and on Saturday was 87% lower than for the average for those days.
The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said early diagnosis of those most at risk would allow for earlier and better treatment and recovery.
Murphy said the health system was “pretty close” to allowing a wind down of strict measures such as self-isolation and business closures. But he warned any relaxing of restrictions was “particularly risky” and he could not predict when that might happen.
Murphy said the decision would have to be made by government leaders who had to be “absolutely confident that we have the best possible public health system that can detect, isolate and contact trace every new case”.
“And that’s we have a testing regime that is one of the best in the world,” Murphy said.
“We are pretty close to that.”
Lewin said about 300 trials of treatments were under way globally.
“There are a few good leads from small studies, originally from China. And now from the US and Europe,” she said.
“But actually none of them have yet been evaluated in what we call a randomised trial comparing the treatment to standard care with a clinical outcome in a large number of people.
“So we are really waiting for these results. Some will come out of China in the next few weeks.”
And she addressed the controversial issue of herd immunity.
“Many of you have heard of the concept of herd immunity, of people becoming immune to the virus without ever getting sick,” she said.
“Well we still have no idea how commonly that occurs. To do that we need a blood test for coronavirus, which we now have.”