While the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium seems to be at its lowest point, the researchers at KU Leuven and University Hospitals Leuven continue unabated their research into the virus. They do so on all fronts: from the search for a vaccine and antivirals to research on the immune system of COVID-19 patients.
One step closer to a KU Leuven vaccine
In January, the team led by Professor Johan Neyts and Dr. Kai Dallmeier began developing eight prototypes of a coronavirus vaccine. The virologists developed a hamster model for the tests, which is now also used in other research centres. Hamsters - unlike mice - appear to be very susceptible to COVID-19 infections and their immune system shows the same overblown response as that of human corona patients.
The tests resulted in one vaccine candidate that appears to be particularly effective in lab animals. Hamsters that were given the vaccine candidate did not become ill and were not contagious either.
The vaccine is based on the existing yellow fever vaccine, in which a piece of the genetic code of the coronavirus was introduced. The team already used this method to develop vaccine candidates against Ebola, zika and rabies. "The yellow fever vaccine has more than proven its effectiveness,” explains Neyts. “We’ve been using it for about eighty years and during that period, probably almost a billion people have been vaccinated with it. One dose of the vaccine provides lifelong protection against yellow fever. Of the more than 120 vaccines that are being developed against COVID-19, ours is the only one that uses yellow fever as a basis.”
In the next phase, the researchers will test the vaccine candidate on human subjects. “We plan to start the first clinical trials around the turn of the year," says Kai Dallmeier, coordinator of the vaccine team. “Normally, it takes at least ten years to develop a vaccine. So we're working at a furious pace.”
In search of virus inhibitor(s)
A vaccine only provides protection if it's administered some time before the infection, so it doesn't offer a solution for patients who are already infected. That is why Professor Johan Neyts and his team are also looking for a powerful antiviral medicine. “To this end, we are currently analysing thousands of components of existing medicines to see if we can already use some of them to inhibit the virus from multiplying in COVID-19 patients,” says Neyts.
A popular candidate is the antiviral remdesivir, originally developed for the Ebola virus. There are currently various international studies testing the impact of specific antivirals such as remdesivir on COVID-19 patients. If further research yields promising results, such virus inhibitors could have a worldwide impact on the treatment of patients with COVID-19.
In the meantime, researchers from the Rega Institute and University Hospitals Leuven have jointly set up promising research projects. Together with a team of top-level researchers, Professor Johan Neyts has identified several molecules that inhibit the coronavirus in a laboratory setting. He was able to do so partly thanks to the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CD3 (Centre for Drug, Design & Development) and Johnson and Johnson.
At University Hospitals Leuven itself as well as in collaboration with other Belgian hospitals, a clinical study has been set up to determine whether patients to whom these molecules were administered recover sooner and end up in intensive care less quickly than patients who did not receive the medicine. This way, the researchers hope to quickly develop new and effective treatments against the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Professor Johan Neyts is looking to the future. He urges the world to invest massively in the development of antivirals. This is not only important to limit the impact of the coronavirus right now, but also to prevent possible new outbreaks in the future.
Virus inhibitors alone are often insufficient. Some patients experience a severe immune system response, which tries to get rid of the viral infection, but at the same time causes damage to the lungs and even to the entire body. In addition to antivirals, these patients need anti-inflammatory medicines that temporarily weaken the immune system response.
In order to anticipate this, the patient's immune profile needs to be identified; a challenge that Professors Joost Wauters and Els Wauters have sunk their teeth into. Joost Wauters works as an internist-intensivist at the Medical Intensive Care unit of University Hospitals Leuven and Els Wauters is a pneumologist at University Hospitals Leuven. Together, they want to discover which patients are more susceptible to a serious coronavirus infection. Their focus is on people with no specific medical history.
Furthermore, their research project 'CONTAGIOUS’ looks at 'biomarkers' in blood or bodily fluids that can determine the immune profile of patients. The goal is to gain more insight into which mechanisms lead to the severe lung damage in the second stage of the disease to predict who will become severely ill and at risk of ending up in intensive care, and who will develop only milder symptoms. If these biomarkers are identified, it becomes possible to start a targeted treatment much sooner, limiting physical damage. As such, this research can also contribute to reducing the number of fatalities.
In the meantime, Professor Marc Van Ranst, head of the Laboratory of Clinical and Epidemiological Virology (Rega Institute) keeps the public informed about SARS-CoV-2 through the media and all other possible channels. He is part of the Risk Assessment Group (RAG), which analyses risks to public health, and is also a member of the Scientific Committee Coronavirus, that advises the authorities on how to fight the virus, and forecasts its evolution and spread in Belgium.
Professor Geert Meyfroidt is an intensivist affiliated with the Laboratory of Intensive Care Medicine of University Hospitals Leuven. He, too, uses his expertise to successfully guide the country through the crisis. As chairman of the Belgian Intensive Care Association, Professor Meyfroidt informs the media about the current capacity in the intensive care units in Belgium. For him and his colleagues in the intensive care units, the corona crisis posed perhaps the greatest challenge of their career.