With vaccine scepticism rising, Europe sees Covid treatments as a means forward
On Thursday, Slovenia surprised the EU with the announcement that it would suspend the use of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine following the death of a 20-year old woman on Tuesday. The cause of death was brain haemorrhage and blood clots, mirroring the concerns surrounding AstraZeneca’s vaccine and pushing the government to launch an investigation into a possible link between the young woman’s death and the inoculation.
This tragedy comes at a time when vaccines scepticism across the EU, including Slovenia, where anti-Covid-pass protests escalated violently, is at an all-time high. According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in May, “14%, 23% and 24% of the British, German and French public, respectively, said they probably or certainly would not get vaccinated” – a surprisingly high percentage of the population that could pose problems to the EU’s stated objective of obtaining herd immunity.
Yet with vaccination rates seemingly hitting a ceiling, the question is how to move forward in this pandemic in a way that saves people’s lives with acute Covid infections, be they vaccinated or not. The answer is simple: Covid treatments, designed to reduce mortality rates from acute infections, as well as adverse long-term effects.
The good news is that many such medications, either already licensed or in the late stages of development, are expected to be widely available quite soon. One of the most promising treatments is fostamatinib, also marketed as Tavalisse in the US and as Tavlesse in Europe, from California-based Rigel Pharmaceuticals. Recently released data has shown Tavalisse’s effectiveness in Phase II clinical trials for the treatment of patients diagnosed with Covid-19. The drug reduced the chances of adverse events and deaths by 50 percent.
Fostamatinib is currently used for the treatment of chronic immune thrombocytopenia (ITP), a condition in which patient’s immune systems destroy the body’s own blood platelets. Hyperinflammatory immune responses are common in patients battling Covid-19, particularly in the lungs, meaning the administration of fostamatinib could help improve outcomes in patients by tackling inflammation and counteracting organ dysfunction.
After being awarded $16.5 million by the US Department of Defense (DOD), Rigel is now carrying out Phase III clinical trials to further evaluate the safety and efficacy of fostamatinib in hospitalised patients – an important milestone following the FDA’s decision not to grant an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the drug until Phase III trial data was made available. Given that the drug has already received FDA approval for the treatment of ITP, repurposing fostamatinib as a treatment for Covid-19 should contribute to a more robust response to the ongoing health crisis.
Alongside Rigel Pharmaceuticals, researchers across Europe are working to identify effective treatments for Covid-19, with encouraging results. One emerging solution includes Camostat, a medicine used for the treatment of pancreatic inflammation that has been shown to block the entry of the virus into lung cells. With research currently underway by German scientists at the Charité in Berlin, the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover Foundation, the BG-Unfallklinik Murnau, the LMU Munich, the Robert Koch Institute and the German Centre for Infection Research, Camostat trials have shown to cut recovery times by 40 percent for Covid sufferers. Separately, researchers at the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the UK are even investigating llama-derived antibodies for their potential to enable faster recovery from Covid-19.
While these drugs still require more testing, data, and approvals, it’s clear there will be plenty of treatment options to choose from in the near future. The greater picture, however, is a common realisation among EU lawmakers that treatments are both necessary and inevitable as vaccines reach their limits. In line with that reality, Brussels’ Covid-19 Therapeutics Strategy seeks to improve “therapeutics research, development, authorisation, manufacturing and deployment.”
The EU’s recent signing of a deal to purchase vast supplies of a monoclonal antibody drug from US producer Eli Lilly is among the first tangible steps taken under the umbrella of the strategy, and is supposed to provide enough medicine to treat up to 220,000 patients. With moves like this one, EU leaders hope the “vaccine ceiling” won’t result in avoidable deaths as the pandemic approaches its two-year anniversary.
Image: Chad Davis/Flickr