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Covid-19: bring on effective treatments

AS far as the Covid pandemic is concerned, what I’m wishing for most of all is a major breakthrough in treatment. Something that will nullify the virus and prevent whatever over-reactive immune responses cause the worst effects in those susceptible.

Ideally, like the treatment being explored by the Doherty Institute in Australia, it will be adaptable to deal with variants and with similar viruses that might erupt in future.

I particularly want this to happen because: A) it will save lives and let society get back to ‘normal’, and B) it will mean (I hope) that we can stop relying so heavily on vaccines.

Our heavy dependence on vaccines worries me. For a start, the vaccines aren’t perfect. They are very good and have done a lot – in rich countries at least – to reduce rates of hospitalisation and death. But they appear to be battling to keep up with mutations and variants, and it’s becoming clear that their efficacy wanes after a time. The next concern is related. If the vaccines’ efficacy fades, then we are potentially faced with the prospect of regular boosters. This is a major issue in my mind, for two reasons.

First, it puts our societies in a bad position of dependence on a handful of big and powerful pharmaceutical corporations. I hate this idea. The vaccine makers, in the case of Covid, have mostly behaved appallingly. They have ruthlessly profiteered, despite having received huge sums of public money by way of subsidy to help get the vaccines created. They have held poor countries to ransom and mostly refused to voluntarily give up even a sliver of their immense Covid profits to help large portions of the global population obtain protection against the virus. These factors, added to the long catalogue of their past misdeeds, make the corporations very bad organisations to have to depend upon.

Second, it threatens to entrench the vaccine passport concept and the principle of forced vaccination. Whilst I understand and support these measures up to a point my support is guarded and qualified. I see them ideally as temporary measures designed to help with the overwhelmingly important task of “flattening the curve” to keep hospitalisation and death rates down. I don’t like the idea of them becoming permanent. And while I deplore the angry demonstrations and ludicrous arguments of those who are “anti-vax” on principle, I genuinely sympathise with people who sincerely object to being forced to accept medicines that do carry very small but nevertheless serious risks.

Speaking personally, I’ve received a first dose of the AZ vaccine but am very anxious about having my second. In my case, the vaccination was closely followed by frightening episodes of cardiac irregularity which troubled myself and my GP very greatly. Having looked at the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s register of adverse reactions, I can see that cardiac reactions have been reported by hundreds of other people. Palpitations, atrial fibrillation, tachycardia and myocardial infarction have all been reported and some (a minute proportion of the number of vaccines administered) have been associated with fatal outcomes. While I accept the point made by health authorities that a portion of these are probably coincidental, my own experience was alarming enough for me to be unhappy about lining up for a second dose. What if the reaction is worse next time? What if it doesn’t settle after a few weeks? It’s been months now, and still not quite completely gone. [My GP has arranged for me to have the Pfizer jab as my second dose, so fingers crossed . . . ]

I want to do the right thing by society but I also worry about my personal welfare. So I understand other people who feel the same way. Yet I realise that, in our present situation, we badly need to get “herd immunity”. And the only ways to get there are by having lots of people infected or lots of people vaccinated. The first way brings horrific costs for all of society. The second way means, unfortunately, that some people who may or may not have become infected with the virus will suffer due to the vaccine. It’s tricky, and gets trickier when we start to argue that people ought to be coerced into being vaccinated against their wills.

Hence my fervent wish that somebody will come up with an effective treatment. Of course there are huge efforts now underway to achieve that goal and I gather that treatment is improving by degree. But to achieve my wish, a breakthrough is needed.

The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Peter McCallum Cancer Centre might have that breakthrough, thanks to funding from the National Foundation for Australia China Relations, NHMRC, Cancer Council Victoria, Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation and Gandel Philanthropy. Scientists at the two centres have found a way to stop the virus replicating in host cells, using a “CRISPR” gene editing tool to eliminate abnormal RNAs. So far it works in test tubes on the virus and its variants, so is moving to animal and, eventually, human trials. Best of all, if it works on Covid-19 it will probably work on many other dangerous viruses.

Elsewhere, several efforts are focused on finding a nasal spray solution, since the cells lining the nose are a key entry point for the virus. Indeed, nasal sprays might prove to be a better way to administer vaccines too, with less risk of side-effects. This Australian product looks very promising.

My next wish, if any or all of this research bears fruit, is that the treatments don’t fall exclusively into the hands of greedy pharmaceutical companies, but are made available globally wherever they are needed.

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