As the topic of virus spreading shifted away from the tightening border between Hong Kong and mainland China, Hong Kong has been witnessing a sharp increase in confirmed cases over the past two weeks. According to a report published by the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection, the majority of new cases are internationally imported.
Meanwhile, scientists around the world have been racing to develop an effective antiviral or a vaccine against COVID-19. Researchers in Hong Kong are now at the phase of animal testing, yet the vaccine still needs additional months before it’s ready for human clinical trials.
A research team at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has been one of the pioneers in figuring out a treatment for the coronavirus infection. Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, the Chair of Infectious Diseases at HKU’s Department of Microbiology claimed that his team had managed to isolate the novel virus from the first imported case in Hong Kong in early February.
Yuen’s team later began their animal trial with a new model of Syrian hamsters. This animal model was chosen because of the high similarity of Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) protein between hamsters and humans.
Researchers now know that ACE2 is the protein that the virus attaches itself to so that it can enter and infect cells. As revealed, the ACE2 protein in both hamsters and humans holds a high binding affinity to the “spike protein” found on the surface of the coronavirus.
The test results showed an alarming similarity between hamsters and human beings. Infected hamsters presented severe damage to the lungs, trachea and immune system during the first week of the trial though some of them recovered after the first week.
It was further found that the blood serum from the recovered hamsters facilitated in lowering the viral load—the amount of detectable virus in a patient’s body— in another newly infected subject.
Similarily, Yuen’s team suggested that the injection of blood serum from recovered patients may help other patients lower the viral load inside their bodies and his team is now awaiting approval from the Medical Council’s ethics committee to begin clinical trials on humans, according to SCMP.
Meanwhile, scientists in mainland China used animal testing on monkeys and discovered that the recovered animals develop immunity from the virus. With clinical tests of remdesivir, an antiviral treatment previously developed by US-based Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola, Chinese doctors reported it had effective in fighting the coronavirus.
Clinical professor John Nicholls, a researcher from the Department of Pathology at HKU, said that the most critical part of the current phase was to balance the benefits of antiviral treatments against any potential side effects.
However, such progress hasn’t stopped social media from suggesting a vast variety of treatments which have contributed to fake news. When speaking about such ‘treatments’, Nicholls added that most of them are only based on anecdotal evidence while scientific trials are missing.
— HKU Medicine (@hkumed) April 8, 2020
This is not a way in which medicine should be practiced. We should be based on scientific methods and good trials rather than anecdotal evidence,” said Professor Nicholls.