Let’s plan for the next pandemic now, and save Covid patients in the process

Dr Alan Walker

DR. Alan Walker, CEO of ILC Therapeutics, has 51 years’ experience across big and small pharma and biotech. He spent more than three decades at Warner Lambert and ProStrakan, and was previously CEO of gene engineering company Ryboquin. His current company has pioneered a therapeutic synthetic Interferon, called Alfacyte™, which will begin clinical trials next year after promising early results for the potential treatment of Covid-19 and other viral-based illnesses. Here, he discusses the essential role that Interferons should play in the planning and preparation for treatment methods in future pandemics.

In the age of Covid, time stretches and condenses in a way that most of us have never truly experienced before. The world can change in the course of a day, and a week brings the highs and lows previously only seen in a soap opera. In the last week alone, we have seen the first UK and US patients receive the Pfizer vaccine in record time, while also seeing parts of England plunged into Tier 4 as well as the emergence of a new Covid strain appearing in the UK. There is hope, yes, but the pandemic is far from over – especially for those on the medical front line, or for patients currently in the ICU fighting this virus.

For many, the vaccine is seen as a panacea which can end this terrible year. However, unless everyone in the entire world is vaccinated immediately (and let’s face it, many people will refuse to be vaccinated, even if offered), Covid-19 will likely remain a threat. Perhaps not to everyone, but certainly to those with weakened immune systems, and especially if the virus continues to mutate over time.

There is also the risk of new coronaviruses, and new global pandemics – the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce has already acknowledged that it is now working towards the next pandemic, whenever it arrives, in order to tackle this before it can develop in the same way. Note the ‘when’, not the ‘if’ – how naïve many of us were to assume this could never happen on such a global scale, and hopefully we will never be so naïve or ill-prepared again.

Whilst fast-tracked vaccine development, as well as utilising the experience we have gained during Covid-19, will be key to ending future pandemics, we still need to produce treatments which can be used against a virus as soon as there is an outbreak. Even for Covid-19, treatment methods will still be needed despite the success of the vaccine. The latest variant of Covid-19 has some 20 amino acid differences and it’s only a matter of time until one escapes the vaccine.

The current pandemic has shown that even a fast-tracked vaccine takes approximately nine months to produce. That is a great achievement in itself and perhaps it will be even more efficient for future pandemics given the knowledge we have gained, but it is in those first few months that virus outbreaks are the most dangerous and fatal to so many people. These first few months are the time when we know the least about a new virus, hence why we have to be armed and ready to treat any condition which can lead to acute respiratory failure as soon as it arises.

It is for this reason that we need to develop treatments which will allow the body’s Innate Immune System to work as required, and stop this and other deadly diseases from progressing within the body whenever there is an outbreak. Such treatments are already in development and have shown great promise against Covid-19 in testing. These can offer us an ‘immediate defence’ against future pandemics and potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.

An article in Nature recently identified key factors which determined how the body would likely respond to Covid-19 – one of them being Interferons, antiviral molecules which all humans produce naturally, and which are seen as the first response when infection is detected. The Nature paper indicated that a good Interferon response is at the core of the body’s defence against this virus, with those who become critically ill more likely to have a reduced natural Interferon response.

Interferon Alpha is nature’s anti-viral of choice in every animal on Earth. Its importance in the Innate Immune System’s fight against viruses cannot be overstated, and so anything which helps to support this response will be needed to fight Covid-19 and future coronavirus-based illnesses.

Having a good Interferon response is at the centre of a healthy innate immune system which is the body’s first line of defence when fighting infections. It does this by containing the virus as soon as it is detected, effectively building a defensive “wall” to prevent it from spreading whilst the body develops a separate response to eradicate the virus altogether. They are called interferons because they “interfere” with a virus’ ability to replicate itself in the body, and thereby contain it.

My company ILC Therapeutics was founded with the aim of exploring and developing the role which Interferons have to play within a wide spectrum of viral diseases, such as Influenza, HIV, HBV and coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS and Covid-19. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked with the University of St Andrews to produce a wide-spectrum, anti-viral, biological drug, Alfacyte™, a synthetic interferon based on this concept, but many times more powerful than natural interferons , essentially strengthening the ‘wall’ of the Innate Immune System so as not to let Covid or other viruses through its barricade.

Clinical trials will hopefully commence next year, and initial results have been hugely promising, and indicate that Alfacyte™ could prevent high risk patients developing ARDS or full-blown COVID-19 when administered into the lungs early in the disease. If we can reduce or prevent the on-set of these severe cases emerging, that is a huge foothold in the fight against coronaviruses in general.

We must have the ability to protect ourselves with an effective anti-viral therapeutic product, and we must be ready to deal with the next large-scale virus when it comes, especially during the wait for a vaccine to be developed. By doing so, we can have the therapeutic potential to prevent the world ever being held hostage again – whether by Covid or the next pandemic.  

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