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COVID-19 Updates, June 15: Solidarity Hydroxychloroquine Trials and COVID Vaccine Development

Many of us are overwhelmed by the amount of information available on COVID-19. Keeping up with all of the news can be challenging. Here are some of the top developments regarding COVID-19.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on June 15, 2020. Further developments in what we know about the coronavirus are continuously emerging.

COVID-19 updates

Uncertainty continues to swirl around hydroxychloroquine

One of the most talked-about drugs in relation to COVID-19 is hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and malaria. Some have suggested that it may impact COVID-19’s ability to replicate, slowing the spread of the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) temporarily stopped and then restarted its Solidarity Trial of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 at the beginning of June. The WHO was responding to an article in the medical journal The Lancet that suggested people taking hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 had a higher risk of dying compared to those who do not take the drug.1,2 After a safety review the WHO restarted the trial and The Lancet withdrew its article.

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For now, many doctors remain cautious about hydroxychloroquine’s effect on COVID-19. Several large studies are being conducted around the world. So far, these studies are finding little benefit to treating COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine. However, some doctors believe the drug may be useful in preventing infection and are still studying whether that is the case.1-3

Potential COVID-19 treatments while waiting on a vaccine

Although scientists around the world are currently studying different vaccine options for COVID-19, we still have a while to go. In the meantime, researchers are focusing on potential treatment options for COVID-19.

Of the dozens of drugs being studied, one has shown promising results. This is the antiviral drug remdesivir. Remdesivir may help speed up COVID-19 recovery. Other antiviral drugs, including those used to treat HIV (like lopinavir and ritonavir), are also being studied. All of these drugs impact the way the virus replicates and could improve outcomes.

Although these drugs are available in the United States, many experts have warned against their use for COVID-19 outside of a clinical trial. This is to make sure that people who are taking these drugs are monitored appropriately. Other drugs that impact the immune system and how aggressive it is in fighting COVID-19 are also being studied.4

Work on a COVID-19 vaccine continues

Several potential COVID-19 vaccines are currently being tested in small clinical trials to determine their safety. While some have shown promising initial results, we are still a long way from finding the right vaccine.

One of the biggest steps in vaccine development is testing and watching responses in hundreds of volunteers. In order to test if a vaccine works, some people will need to be given the vaccine while others are given a placebo. A placebo does not contain the active medication or treatment that is being studied in the clinical trial. The use of a placebo helps scientists understand if the treatment being studied (in this case, a vaccine) is safer and more effective than no treatment at all.5 Then, both groups will need to be exposed to the virus to see who gets sick.

Of course, it would not be ethical to directly expose people to COVID-19 who have not been vaccinated. Instead, researchers often pick people that are considered high risk. This might include people living in a densely populated city or groups of healthcare workers.

This whole process also depends on COVID-19 still being around. For example, if a vaccine is being tested during a slump of COVID-19 cases, we may not know if it works until another wave of COVID-19 comes back.

A delicate balance must be found between wanting to prevent COVID-19 and the need to test the strength of the vaccines. There are also concerns that even if a strong vaccine is developed, the supplies to mass-produce it may not be available. Additionally, there may be many people who do not want the vaccine (thus, reducing its effectiveness).

All of these obstacles will need to be considered as we move forward as quickly and safely as possible through the process of vaccine development.6,7 Although specific aspects to these clinical trials are not yet finalized, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expects to see randomized clinical trials with treatment and placebo groups.6

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