Scientists are said to be only “a few weeks” away from concluding trials of drugs to treat coronavirus.
Australian researchers have been investigating whether existing antiviral drugs could be used to improve survival rates for patients in intensive care.
While experts across the world are racing to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, it is expected to be months or even years before one is ready and in the shorter term scientists are working to develop treatments to make the disease less deadly.
“The timeline for antiviral drugs and knowing whether they work or not is much shorter than for vaccines,” Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, told reporters on Monday.
“Because these studies are using existing drugs, so we know their safety, we know how to use them. We just don’t know if they lead to clinical benefit,” she added, in comments reported by The Guardian.
Professor Lewin, who also leads collaborative university studies at the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Diseases Emergencies (Apprise), was speaking after the country’s health minister announced A$3m (£1.5m) government funding to help fast-track research into coronavirus treatments and diagnosis.
A third of the money will go to a project run by University of Western Australia in Perth that is looking at giving antiviral and immune-modulating drugs to patients in intensive care.
Prof Lewin said the study “builds on a pre-existing network” that was established “before we ever knew coronavirus existed” to research treatments for severe pneumonia.
The remaining A$2m funding will be spread over nine projects led by Apprise, including research to establish the prevalence of immunity to Covid-19.
“Many of you would have heard about the concept of herd immunity, or people becoming immune to the virus without ever getting sick,” Prof Lewin said.
“We still have no idea how commonly that occurs.”
The number of new coronavirus cases rose by 33 in Australia on Monday, the slowest rate in a month and less than a tenth of the daily rate two weeks ago. Australia has now recorded 6,322 cases and 61 deaths.
But Greg Hunt, the health minister, said it was too soon to relax restrictions,
“Now is the time to stay the course, to continue with these, self-isolation and social distancing,” he told televised briefing. “These are producing real reductions in the rate of growth.”
Australia deployed its toughest crackdown yet over the Easter bank holiday weekend, with helicopters, police checkpoints and hefty fines used to deter people from breaking the travel ban or breaching public gathering rules.
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