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Column: What's new in COVID-19 research

UNC's first on-campus vaccine clinic opens Wednesday
A vaccine dose lies ready to be administered in the Student Union on March 31, 2021

The delta variant of COVID-19 has been identified by researchers to have passed its peak, with new cases, hospitalizations and deaths declining in most states. However, with advancements in the booster shot rollout, the virus has continued to be a major point of conversation regarding transmission during the holiday season.

Here is a quick rundown of what’s new in COVID-19 research and development, and what to keep an eye out for in the upcoming months.

New antibody for COVID-19 and variants

Duke and UNC l have been at the forefront of COVID-19 research since the beginning of the pandemic, and that hasn’t changed with 2021 coming to a close. The Duke Human Vaccine Institute identified an antibody that limits the severity of infection from a variety of coronaviruses — those that cause COVID-19 and the original SARS illness.

The antibody has the ability to target and bind to COVID-19 viruses to block them from infecting cells within the body. It was tested at UNC in mice models to identify whether it could effectively block or minimize infections, which it did.

This could potentially translate into new vaccine strategies that are effective for new variants, preventing further pandemic waves.

Animal transmission of COVID-19

A recent study has produced evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads rapidly in white-tailed deer — something that’s concerning given their significant population across Chapel Hill. A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and the Midwest found that 40 percent of the sampled deer had antibodies against the virus.

The species has since been identified as a reservoir for the virus — meaning that they could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically. This suggests that eradicating the virus completely on a global or national scale would be virtually impossible.  

Another concern would be the virus evolving within the deer species, and creating new strains. The idea that COVID-19 could be transmitted across animals and humans makes the emergence, tracking and treatment of new variants even more complicated.

The rise of a COVID-19 antiviral pill

Earlier this month, Britain became the first country to approve a COVID-19 antiviral pill, which was jointly developed by U.S.-based companies Merck & Co., Inc. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. The pill is currently recommended for people with mild to moderate COVID-19, who also have at least one risk factor for developing severe illness. The pill is instructed to be administered as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of the onset of symptoms.

This is the first oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19 — and the first that will be administered widely. U.S. advisers are currently planning to meet on Nov. 30 to review the drug’s safety and efficacy data and vote on its authorization.

In the United States, Pfizer is also making headlines by agreeing to a license-sharing deal that would allow their experimental COVID-19 drug to be manufactured across the globe — an agreement that could give more than half of the world’s population access to the treatment. 

With potentially two antiviral COVID-19 drugs on the market with license-sharing agreements, we can expect to see a significant reduction in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

It will also ensure that people, regardless of their location or circumstances, have access to cutting-edge medical treatments that are easier to store and administer than vaccines.


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