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After the COVID-19 peak, challenges linger

July 1, 2021

COVID-19 spelled out using in pills

As the pandemic winds down, or at least appears to, we take a breath to focus attention on some less emergent but still critical aspects of COVID-19. That’s what Politico did in a recent report on the stagnation of drug development not for vaccines, but for treating already infected patients.

Then on June 17, the White House, via Dr. Anthony Fauci, announced a $3.2 billion investment in such treatments from the American Rescue Plan.

The Antiviral Program for Pandemics “aims to catalyze the development of new medicines to combat COVID-19 and, importantly, to prepare for other pandemic threats,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Other pandemic threats include viruses that lead to hemorrhagic fevers and severe encephalitis as well as diseases from coronaviruses other than SARS-CoV-2.

Antivirals complement vaccines, especially for vulnerable individuals like the immunosuppressed, and are a second line of defense against SARS-CoV-2 variants. The program will support fundamental research, clinical evaluation, development, authorization, and manufacturing. One objective is a pill you could buy at a pharmacy to treat COVID-19, similar to ones available to treat HIV.

Immune cells in tissue and blood differ

The pandemic has revealed another challenge: gaps in our understanding of the human immune system. The problem was laid out in great depth in this Nature commentary. “One of the biggest [understanding gaps] is the reactions in tissues – at sites of infection and where disease manifests,” writes Donna L. Farber, professor of surgical sciences, microbiology and immunology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York.

Farber offers the example of how immune cells from COVID patients’ airways were different from the immune profile of their blood, and that analyzing both kinds of human biospecimens helped scientists understand the bigger picture of immune cell behavior.

“To fully grasp the immune system, researchers need to understand respiratory, gut and skin immunity, and how each interacts with nearby lymph nodes,” she writes. “That means expanding support and infrastructure for obtaining tissues: forging alliances with clinicians, biobanks, hospitals and procurement agencies for donor organs.”

Farber called for more pairing of blood and tissue samples by clinicians and immunologists, more biobanking of immune-rich tissue and secretions, and deeper connections between immunologists and clinicians.

Rapid research and development

One more revelation from the pandemic has been the speed and efficiency with which a drug development project can be designed, launched and successfully executed, and how the efficient procurement of human biospecimens from tested individuals – whether negative, asymptomatic or very sick – can help expedite the progress.

At iSpecimen, we will continue to support efforts to prevent and treat COVID-19 and to provide human biofluids, tissue and immune cell samples to help close the gaps in understanding patient biology.

Learn about the iSpecimen Marketplace where you can browse millions of richly annotated, de-identified human tissue and biofluid biospecimens, in addition to hematopoietic and immune cell products and COVID-19 samples. You can join for free.