Newswise — A prominent Australian pharmacologist has called for a new approach to treating COVID-19 as hopes fade of finding an effective vaccine or antiviral before the end of the year.

University of South Australia (UniSA) Emeritus Professor Richard Head says scientists should be focusing on repurposing existing proven drugs to block the acute inflammatory responses to the virus in seriously ill patients.

“We should be treating the host – not necessarily the virus – in the first instance, and buying ourselves time to identify, manufacture and employ drugs and vaccines which target the spread of the virus throughout the body,” Prof Head says.

In a new journal commentary published with colleagues from the University of Newcastle, Prof Head calls for an “urgent, coordinated international approach” led by a taskforce of industry and peak research bodies to save time and minimise duplication.

“By clinically evaluating existing drugs, the goal is to mitigate the life-threatening inflammatory respiratory processes that are a key factor in COVID-19,” he says.

“This deadly and astonishing virus can destroy cells on a grotesque scale, piercing an enzyme called ACE2 to gain entry via the lung and dysregulating normal cell functions.”

ACE2 is the host receptor which provides the entry point for the coronavirus to hook into and infect a wide range of human cells. It is critical to regulating inflammation in many of the body’s organs.

By invading and damaging the enzyme, the SARS-CoV-2 virus disrupts ACE2’s normal regulatory function, sending the immune system off balance and driving severe inflammation.

“We can’t restore broken ACE2, so we need to block and dampen the inflammatory response and take control of what happens when these enzymes are disabled.”

Prof Head says while eliminating the virus is the ideal goal, a new approach is needed immediately to tackle acute cases, which would also take the pressure off health resources and buy valuable time to find a vaccine and antivirals.

“Inevitably, the world needs a solution that can be effective in the absence of a vaccine and antivirals, as social isolation eases and the economy starts to re-open. Realistically, a vaccine may never be developed exactly as planned, or potentially take a year, or years, to be rolled out globally,” he says.