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From Bench to Bedside: How research will lead our recovery from COVID-19

By Shefali Rai, February 4 2021—

COVID-19 vaccines are all the buzz in the new year, with reports of the general public receiving the vaccine as early as summer 2021. While credit is due for the remarkable feat of developing a vaccine within a year, concerns swirling its efficacy and safety have not only overshadowed its marvel but also shifted the spotlight from the impact research will have on our future with COVID-19. 

With support from the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the Office of Continuing Medical Education & Professional Development (CME & PD) of the Cumming School of Medicine, researchers gathered together in an attempt to relay much needed information on the role science plays in our recovery from COVID-19.

Dr. Jon Meddings, Dean of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, believes even though the world has seen numerous pandemics before, this one is much different. 

“One of the major differences is that our transition to a post pandemic state is much quicker than any previous pandemics. [This is] our first pandemic in the age of modern science,” said Meddings. 

Dr. Craig Jenne, Associate Professor with the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and a member of the Snyder Institute, started off the webinar tackling the star of the show: COVID-19 vaccines. He explained how the novel coronavirus isn’t anything akin to our run of the mill flu virus. 

“The flu in Canada takes on average 9.27 Canadian lives out of every 100,000 in the population. COVID so far has taken 44.7 out of 100,000, which is a dramatic increase in the number of deaths per Canadian while we have been [trying to] keep the virus under control,” Jenne added. 

Jenne further explores why we need a vaccine and challenges the notion of natural immunity being the solution to COVID-19. Jenne tried to debunk the idea of relying on our natural defences to fight the virus. Jenne confirms a natural protection against the virus is not durable and not an ideal approach for high-risk individuals.

“Not all immunity is protective, if you recover you may still be reinfected and [after] five to six weeks, antibodies can drop rapidly in some patients,” echoed Jenne. 

With the public’s support and parallel international efforts, the COVID-19 vaccine broke records for the fastest vaccine ever to be developed for public use. To a non-researcher a year may seem sufficient given the state of our global economy and the plethora of adverse effects from isolation, but Jenne informs a conventional vaccine can take years to develop and cost over $2 billion from conception to formal testing. 

“We didn’t start from scratch, [the] virus is similar to SARS and MERS and we could draw on experience,” Jenne stated. 

Even though the vaccine was accelerated, Jenne reminds us that safety was not compromised. With clinical data from over 40,000 patients and strict Health Canada approval regulations, the vaccine will lessen disease severity. Jenne further pointed to a resource available from the New York Times for those wanting detailed information regarding all potential vaccines and approvals.  

Jenne phrased the theme of the webinar elegantly — vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do. But with only 60 per cent of Canadians willing to get vaccinated, Dr. Paul Kubes, Professor and Founding Director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, stresses the importance of continuing to fund research. Kubes’ take-home message for us all: ICUs may still remain overwhelmed post vaccination and continuing research needs to be at the forefront of our minds.

“It’s very important that we continue to do research beyond the vaccine. If the vaccine is 95 per cent effective, then we should all get it. Five percent of 40 million are not protected and that’s a significant number [so] we need to guard against that,” urged Kubes.

Even if every single one of us happily lined up to get vaccinated, 2 million Canadians will still remain unprotected so the need to properly study, image, and grow the virus is more pertinent than ever. Kubes explains the dire need for a Biosafety Level 3 facility – an intensive facility mandatory for any work involving the COVID-19 virus.  

“You can’t work with the virus, grow the virus, [or] infect cells without a Level 3 facility. [For] just a simple experiment in a mouse to see if the vaccine works, you have to have a Level 3 facility,” further added Kubes. 

Plans are underway to effectively track how the novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc inside our bodies. With government approval to start research at the UCalgary’s Level 3 facility moments away, Kubes focuses on projects that can visualize the virus in action in an actual human system.

“Once the virus enters the bloodstream it’s like hitting the highway and now it can go anywhere. Heart disease can get worse, [it] can cause strokes and kidney disease,” clarified Kubes. 

Kubes explained, “we still have to do additional research. Things will not end with the vaccine.” 

Diverting focus from vaccines to the power of research in this pandemic was also Dr. Braedon McDonald’s approach. McDonald, clinician-scientist in the Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the Snyder Institute, believes a strategy of testing old drugs for a new disease will help those who become severely ill and need treatments rather than vaccines. 

“Disease is caused by two components, the virus and our own immune response, which in some cases can overdo it and cause damage,” explained McDonald.

However, the regulatory approval for new medications can take 10 years or even longer, a timeline that patients simply cannot afford. McDonald’s solution is to head back to the medicine cabinet and see if tried and true medications can be repurposed for new diseases — a creative solution to expedite the generation of new therapies. 

“Do we have drugs that can treat viruses and dampen overactive immune responses?” asked McDonald. 

Using the analogy of a fire extinguisher to put out a match versus larger fires, McDonald recognizes medications, such as Dexamethasone — a powerful corticosteroid medication and highly potent anti-inflammatory drug — may not suffice for the general population yet can greatly help severely ill patients. 

“Those affected have the most to gain from these medicines. Patients who had life threatening illnesses decreased their risk of death from 41 per cent to 29 per cent on Dexamethasone, [which] is really remarkable,” said McDonald. 

Audience polling at the end of the webinar demonstrated many of those who were initially hesitant about the vaccines were positively swayed and would now be willing to get vaccinated. 

In a follow-up interview with the Gauntlet, Dr. Kelly Burak, Associate of CME & PD, Snyder Institute member and moderator of the webinar, said “this type of public education is going to be important in addressing vaccine hesitancy, and ensuring that science guides our recovery from the pandemic”.

Follow up on the full recording of the webinar discussion here: COVID Community | Cumming School of Medicine | University of Calgary (ucalgary.ca)

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