One of the therapies being provided to the US president, Donald Trump, could pave the way to fighting Covid-19, one of Australia’s top scientists has said.
Prof Peter Doherty, who shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1996 for his work on how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells, believes a vaccine might not be the only answer.
“Vaccines will help a lot, they’ll shift the bar, but I don’t think they’re going to end the problem,” Doherty told the Melbourne Press Club on Monday.
Trump has been treated with Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, as well as an eight-gram infusion of monoclonal antibodies. The president has also been put on dexamethasone, a steroid that is proven, thanks to the UK’s Recovery trial, to benefit Covid patients who are having breathing difficulties.
Doherty said monoclonal antibodies, which could be made in large quantities, were “highly specific” and “really powerful”. Australia has the ability to manufacture them through Melbourne-based biotechnology company CSL.
“We’re hoping these are going to work really well on president Trump … because that’s our best shot out there at the moment for a specific therapy,” Doherty said on Monday.
“We’re lucky that we’ve retained CSL in Australia and we have the capacity to make large amounts of monoclonal antibodies. One of the problems with this, as we develop therapies and vaccines come forward, is actually getting the product. Having CSL here is a big plus.”
But Doherty had some potentially bad news for Trump too. He said the lack of information regarding the long-term effects of coronavirus was “very concerning”.
“Even people who don’t get hospitalised – there are cardiac problems, myocardial damage, kidney damage,” he said.
“The reason diabetics are so susceptible is probably because they have already got kidney damage. There’s a whole yet we don’t understand about (the long-term damage) and better understanding would feed into better therapy.”
Doherty said while a Covid-19 vaccine candidate could possibly be rolled out in the US early in 2021 its potential effectiveness remained unknown.
“Will they be like the influenza vaccine, where they’re 40-60% effective? Or will they be like measles vaccine, which is over 90% effective – we don’t know,” said Doherty, who’s also the patron of Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. “The way out of this is going to be interesting and politically challenging.”
Trump’s doctors on Sunday said his health was improving and he could be discharged as early as Monday after he was admitted to hospital last week.
His medical team also reported his blood oxygen level dropped suddenly twice in recent days and that they gave him a steroid typically only recommended for the very sick. They sidestepped questions about whether lung scans showed any damage.