1st Sep 2020

COVID-19 FAQ: how administering immune proteins could stop the illness from turning severe?

1st Sep 2020

Curated by Endre Szvetnik

UK scientists have reported in a randomised controlled trial (which provides the strongest evidence in the hierarchy of medical research) that inhaled interferons can reduce by 79% the chance of a COVID-19 case turning severe.

nasally administered therapy

Interferons are proteins made by the body. They act as the alarm system and the first line of defence of the immune system when we face infection. Studies published earlier during the 2020 pandemic already suggested that administering them along with antiviral drugs could slow down the replication of the virus (see our earlier FAQ answer). Normally, when a new infection happens, interferons would go to call in an immune reaction and fight it. But in the case of COVID-19 this reaction is much weaker. Emerging research seems to confirm that the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-19 is significantly blocking interferon production in the body. As a result, our immune system does not give a timely reaction to the viral infection. Researchers have studied human and animal cells from infected donors and found that interferons were missing from them. Further research has established that interferons go absent not only in lung tissue - where severe COVID-19 often causes significant damage - but in blood cells as well.

How can we benefit from these discoveries? Earlier research has focused on the role of type I and type III (alpha and lambda) interferons in treating coronavirus infections. Both have their benefits and drawbacks. The more recent studies looked into type II (beta) interferons that are in use to treat multiple sclerosis. Following the successful - but limited UK trial with only 101 patients - a global, phase 3 clinical trial is aiming to test if interferons indeed offer an added benefit. During the trial a much larger cohort (over a thousand people) will be taking either just remdesivir, an antiviral drug licenced to treat COVID-19 or remdesivir and interferon beta-1a. The study involves patients who are hospitalised but not on ventilators, to establish if early administration of interferons can stop COVID-19 from turning severe or life-threatening in at-risk patients. Researchers are suggesting that the benefit can be made only with using them at an early stage of the illness. Animal studies have found that late administration, on the other hand, could make symptoms worse. Finding the “sweet spot” - the period when interferon beta can stop the disease from turning severe - on the other hand, will be very beneficial. It may make it possible to home-administered treatment that could stop the progression of the illness and help avoid going to the hospital.

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard.

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Curated by

Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.

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