The Guardian: How Covid changed medicine for the future

February 23, 2022


“This is an interesting article that reviews how the pandemic has provided a kick-start to collaborative research efforts around the world, not just trying to find what causes Long Covid and how best to treat it, but also for ME/CFS, and other diseases that have plagued mankind for generations. Not that it should have taken such a serious pandemic to generate this sudden flurry of activity, and it wasn't as if warnings hadn't been sounded for decades about the risk of a global health crisis caused by zoonotic (a disease that jumps from animals to humans) infection, but it is good to see the research and medical communities so invigorated.

“Hopefully, the response to Covid-19 will continue to demonstrate to government that funding research should remain a top priority, and this focus will generate much-needed quality research – and answers – for the ME/CFS community too.”

Russell Fleming, Communications Manager, ME Association

By Mattha Busby, 20 February, 2022

The global pandemic sparked a huge superhuman effort to control coronavirus. But the billions spent have also had an unexpected impact on medicine and science

Extracts

The Covid pandemic sparked an unprecedented drive to control a lethal disease whose outbreak led to a near global shutdown to contain its spread. Billions in public and private money were pumped into research like never before in such a short space of time. It’s not something the medical world would have chosen, but the developments of the past two years could not have happened without Covid-19 – the pathogen has served as a giant catalyst ushering in different technologies, data and research that offer insights into other diseases.

The lessons that have been learned – and the new norms that have solidified – will change medical science forever. The world now sits on the verge of a number of potentially significant breakthroughs, mostly thanks to the growing research into hi-tech vaccines, which could benefit patients with cancer and a whole raft of infectious diseases. Meanwhile, new studies into long Covid could shine a light into blood clotting, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and other conditions associated with the stubborn virus. Obesity and vitamin levels are under the microscope; while digitisation and increased cross-border collaboration could soon reap rewards.

“Covid has stimulated the rapid translation of previous knowledge into practice,” says Independent Sage member and UCL professor of virology, Deenan Pillay. “Developing science takes many years and needs an opportunity to be implemented. Covid has provided an easier regulatory environment, with fast-tracked trials, so vaccine developments, for example, have been really quick.”

Vaccines

Until Covid it could take a decade or more for a new vaccine or drug to go through all the development and regulatory stages, he adds, but now they have been rolled out within 12 months of first description of the disease. “Our expectations are now for a much more rapid translation and implementation of scientific advances,” says Pillay. “The caveat to this is the continuing need for equity of access to these advances, which is yet to be seen with Covid vaccines and drugs…”

mRNA

Just five years ago, there was widespread hesitation to invest in experimental drugs that use synthetic molecules to guide human cells into making specific proteins that can defend against diseases. No product based on mRNA (which stands for messenger ribonucleic acid, and provides recipes to create proteins) technology had ever been approved, but within two years, the rapid development and success of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s jabs against Covid were a gamechanger…

Obesity

Meanwhile, there has been more focus on how to tackle obesity since it has emerged as a leading factor related to Covid – 78% of US patients hospitalised between March and December 2020 were overweight. In June, the first obesity medication approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration since 2014 hit the market. Semaglutide, also known as Wegovy, could be up to twice as effective as previous weight-loss medications after a study of nearly 2,000 patients saw participants lose on average 15% of their body weight…

Vitamin D

Covid has also shone a light on the potential benefits of vitamin D. In Norway, Finland and Iceland, where there’s an emphasis on maintaining healthy levels of the vitamin, persistently low Covid mortality rates have been observed compared to other northern-hemisphere countries with less of a focus on the sunshine nutrient. Amid the ongoing search to ascertain exactly what makes some people more vulnerable to Covid than others, focus on vitamin D earlier this year led to the publication of a paper in a Lancet journal co-authored by dozens of experts, which suggested deficiencies could be a root issue in the development of many diseases…

Microclotting

And as more in-depth research into Long Covid is starting to emerge, it is throwing more light on other long-term conditions, such as ME/CFS. The crucial link here could be microclotting, an area Resia Pretorius, head of the physiological sciences department at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, has long been exploring, but the need for further understanding has become even more pressing due to Covid. The model under scrutiny proposes that small clots in blood capillaries preventing oxygen from reaching tissues may cause long-Covid symptoms…

“There might be a point of no return for many ME/CFS patients – this might also be the case for long Covid, if you don’t treat early in the disease onset, then the body can become overwhelmed by inflammatory molecules that may cause significant damage. We suspect the reasons why people develop long Covid from a viral infection could be similar to why individuals develop ME/CFS.”

Resia Pretorius
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