Right now, many U.S. hospitals are stretched to the limit trying to help people battling serious cases of COVID-19. But as traumatic as this experience still is for patients and their loved ones, the chances of surviving COVID-19 have in fact significantly improved in the year since the start of the pandemic.
This improvement stems from several factors, including the FDA’s emergency use authorization (EUA) of a number of therapies found to be safe and effective for COVID-19. These include drugs that you may have heard about on the news: remdesivir (an antiviral), dexamethasone (a steroid), and monoclonal antibodies from the companies Eli Lilly and Regeneron.
Yet the quest to save more lives from COVID-19 isn’t even close to being finished, and researchers continue to work intensively to develop new and better treatments. A leader in this critical effort is NIH’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) initiative, a public-private partnership involving 20 biopharmaceutical companies, academic experts, and multiple federal agencies.
ACTIV was founded last April to accelerate drug research that typically requires more than a decade of clinical ups and downs to develop a safe, effective therapy. And ACTIV has indeed moved at unprecedented speed since its launch. Cutting through the usual red tape and working with an intense sense of purpose, the partnership took a mere matter of weeks to set up its first four clinical trials. Beyond the agents mentioned above that have already been granted an EUA, ACTIV is testing 15 additional potential agents, with several of these already demonstrating promising results.
Here’s how ACTIV works. The program relies on four expert “working groups” with specific charges:
Preclinical Working Group: Shares standardized preclinical evaluation resources and accelerate testing of candidate therapies and vaccines for clinical trials.
Clinical Trial Capacity Working Group: Has developed and organized an inventory of clinical trial capacity that can serve as potential settings in which to implement effective COVID-19 clinical trials.
To give you just one example of how much these expert bodies have accomplished in record time, the Therapeutics Clinical Working Group got to work immediately evaluating some 400 candidate therapeutics using multiple publicly available information sources. These candidates included antivirals, host-targeted immune modulators, monoclonal antibodies (mAb), and symptomatic/supportive agents including anticoagulants. To follow up on even more new leads, the working group launched a COVID-19 Clinical & Preclinical Candidate Compound Portal, which remains open for submissions of therapeutic ideas and data.
All the candidate agents have been prioritized using rigorous scoring and assessment criteria. What’s more, the working group simultaneously developed master protocols appropriate for each of the drug classes selected and patient populations: outpatient, inpatient, or convalescent.
Through the coordinated efforts of all the working groups, here’s where we stand with the ACTIV trials:
ACTIV-1: A large-scale Phase 3 trial is enrolling hospitalized adults to test the safety and effectiveness of three medicines (cenicriviroc, abatacept, and infliximab). They are called immune modulators because they help to minimize the effects of an overactive immune response in some COVID-19 patients. This response, called a “cytokine storm,” can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, multiple organ failure, and other life-threatening complications.
ACTIV-2: A Phase 2/3 trial is enrolling adults with COVID-19 who are not hospitalized to evaluate the safety of multiple monoclonal antibodies (Lilly’s LY-CoV555, Brii Biosciences’s BRII-196 and BRII-198, and AstraZeneca’s AZD7442) used to block or neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Lilly monoclonal antibody LY-CoV555 received an EUA for high risk non-hospitalized patients on November 9, 2020 and ACTIV-2 continued to test the agent in an open label study to further determine safety and efficacy in outpatients. Another arm of this trial has just started, testing inhaled, easy-to-administer interferon beta-1a treatment in adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are not hospitalized. An additional arm will test the drug camostat mesilate, a protease inhibitor that can block the TMPRSS2 host protein that is necessary for viral entry into human cells.
ACTIV-3: This Phase 3 trial is enrolling hospitalized adults with COVID-19. This study primarily aims to evaluate safety and to understand if monoclonal antibodies (AstraZeneca’s AZD7442, BRII-196 and BRII-198, and the VIR-7831 from GSK/Vir Biotechnology) and potentially other types of therapeutics can reduce time to recovery. It also aims to understand a treatment’s effect on extrapulmonary complications and respiratory dysfunction. Lilly’s monoclonal antibody LY-CoV555 was one of the first agents to be tested in this clinical trial and it was determined to not show the same benefits seen in outpatients. [Update: NIH-Sponsored ACTIV-3 Clinical Trial Closes Enrollment into Two Sub-Studies, March 4, 2021]
ACTIV-4: This trial aims to determine if various types of blood thinners, including apixaban, aspirin, and both unfractionated (UF) and low molecular weight (LMW) heparin, can treat adults diagnosed with COVID-19 and prevent life-threatening blood clots from forming. There are actually three Phase 3 trials included in ACTIV-4. One is enrolling people diagnosed with COVID-19 but who are not hospitalized; a second is enrolling patients who are hospitalized; and a third is enrolling people who are recovering from COVID-19. ACTIV-4 has already shown that full doses of heparin blood thinners are safe and effective for moderately ill hospitalized patients.
ACTIV-5: This is a Phase 2 trial testing newly identified agents that might have a major benefit to hospitalized patients with COVID-19, but that need further “proof of concept” testing before they move into a registrational Phase 3 trial. (In fact, another name for this trial is the “Big Effect Trial”.) It is testing medicines previously developed for other conditions that might be beneficial in treatment of COVID-19. The first two agents being tested are risankizumab (the result of a collaboration between Boehringer-Ingelheim), which is already FDA-approved to treat plaque psoriasis, and lenzilumab, which is under development by Humanigen to treat patients experiencing cytokine storm as part of cancer therapy.
In addition to trials conducted under the ACTIV partnership, NIH has prioritized and tested additional therapeutics in “ACTIV-associated trials.” These are NIH-funded, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials with one or more industry partners. Here’s a table with a comprehensive list.
Looking a bit further down the road, we also seek to develop orally administered drugs that would potentially block the replication ability of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in the earliest stages of infection. One goal would be to develop an antiviral medication for SARS-CoV-2 that acts similarly to oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu®), a drug used to shorten the course of the flu in people who’ve had symptoms for less than two days and to prevent the flu in asymptomatic people who may have been exposed to the influenza virus. Yet another major long-term effort of NIH and its partners will be to develop safe and effective antiviral medications that work against all coronaviruses, even those with variant genomes. (And, yes, such drugs might even cure the common cold!)
So, while our ACTIV partners and many other researchers around the globe continue to harness the power of science to end the devastating COVID-19 pandemic as soon as possible, we must also consider the lessons learned this past year, in order to prepare ourselves to respond more swiftly to future outbreaks of coronaviruses and other infectious disease threats. Our work is clearly a marathon, not a sprint.
One of many troubling complications of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is its ability to trigger the formation of multiple blood clots, most often in older people but sometimes in younger ones, too. It raises the question of whether and when more aggressive blood thinning treatments might improve outcomes for people hospitalized for COVID-19.
The answer to this question is desperately needed to help guide clinical practice. So, I’m happy to report interim results of three large clinical trials spanning four continents and more than 300 hospitals that are beginning to provide critical evidence on this very question . While it will take time to reach a solid consensus, the findings based on more than 1,000 moderately ill patients suggest that full doses of blood thinners are safe and can help to keep folks hospitalized with COVID-19 from becoming more severely ill and requiring some form of organ support.
The results that are in so far suggest that individuals hospitalized, but not severely ill, with COVID-19 who received a full intravenous dose of the common blood thinner heparin were less likely to need vital organ support, including mechanical ventilation, compared to those who received the lower “prophylactic” subcutaneous dose. It’s important to note that these findings are in contrast to results announced last month indicating that routine use of a full dose of blood thinner for patients already critically ill and in the ICU wasn’t beneficial and may even have been harmful in some cases . This is a compelling example of how critical it is to stratify patients with different severity in clinical trials—what might help one subgroup might be of no benefit, or even harmful, in another.
More study is clearly needed to sort out all the details about when more aggressive blood thinning treatment is warranted. Trial investigators are now working to make the full results available to help inform a doctor’s decisions about how to best to treat their patients hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s worth noting that these trials are overseen by independent review boards, which routinely evaluate the data and are composed of experts in ethics, biostatistics, clinical trials, and blood clotting disorders.
This ACTIV-4 trial is one of three Phase 3 clinical trials evaluating the safety and effectiveness of blood thinners for patients with COVID-19 . Another ongoing trial is investigating whether blood thinners are beneficial for newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients who do not require hospitalization. There are also plans to explore the use of blood thinners for patients after they’ve been discharged from the hospital following a diagnosis of moderate to severe COVID-19 and to establish more precise methods for identifying which patients with COVID-19 are most at risk for developing life-threatening blood clots.
Meanwhile, research teams are exploring other potentially promising ways to repurpose existing therapeutics and improve COVID-19 outcomes. In fact, the very day that these latest findings on blood thinners were announced, another group at The Montreal Heart Institute, Canada, announced preliminary results of the international COLCORONA trial, testing the use of colchicine—an anti-inflammatory drug widely used to treat gout and other conditions—for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 .
Their early findings in treating patients just after a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 suggest that colchicine might reduce the risk of death or hospitalization compared to patients given a placebo. In the more than 4,100 individuals with a proven diagnosis of COVID-19, colchicine significantly reduced hospitalizations by 25 percent, the need for mechanical ventilation by 50 percent, and deaths by 44 percent. Still, the actual numbers of individuals represented by these percentages was small.
Time will tell whether and for which patients colchicine and blood thinners prove most useful in treating COVID-19. For those answers, we’ll have to await the analysis of more data. But the early findings on both treatment strategies come as a welcome reminder that we continue to make progress each day on such critical questions about which existing treatments can be put to work to improve outcomes for people with COVID-19. Together with our efforts to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, finding better ways to treat those who do get sick and prevent some of the worst outcomes will help us finally put this terrible pandemic behind us.
These round, multi-colored orbs in the illustration above may resemble SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. But they’re actually lab-made nanocrystals called quantum dots. They have been specially engineered to look and, in some ways, act like the coronavirus while helping to solve a real challenge for many labs that would like to study SARS-CoV-2.
Quantum dots, which have been around since the mid-1980s, are designed with special optical properties that allow them to fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. The two pictured here are about 10 nanometers in diameter, about 3,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The quantum dot consists of a semi-conductive cadmium selenide inner core (orange) surrounded by a zinc sulfide outer shell (teal). Molecules on its surface (yellow) allow researchers to attach the viral spike protein (purple), which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.
To the left is a human cell (gray) studded with the ACE2 receptors (blue) that those viral spike proteins bind to before SARS-CoV-2 enters and infects our cells. In the background, you see another spike protein-studded quantum dot. But human neutralizing antibodies (pink) are preventing that one from reaching the human cell.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is so highly infectious, basic researchers without access to specially designed biosafety facilities may be limited in their ability to study the virus. But these harmless quantum dots offer a safe workaround. While the quantum dots may bind and enter human cells just like the virus, they can’t cause an infection. They offer a quick, informative way to assess the potential of antibodies or other compounds to prevent the coronavirus from binding to our cells.
In work published in the journal ACS Nano, a team that included Kirill Gorshkov, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Rockville, MD, along with Eunkeu Oh and Mason Wolak, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., demonstrated how these quantum dots may serve as a useful new tool to speed the search for new COVID-19 treatments. The dots’ fluorescent glow enabled the researchers to use a microscope to observe how these viral mimics bind to ACE2 in real time, showing how SARS-CoV-2 might attach to and enter our cells, and suggesting ways to intervene.
Indeed, imagine thousands of tiny wells in which human cells are growing. Imagine adding a different candidate drug to each well; then imagine adding the loaded quantum dots to each well and using machine vision to identify the wells where the dots could not enter the cell. That’s not science fiction. That’s now.
With slightly different versions of their quantum dots, the NCATS researchers and their colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory will now explore how other viral proteins are important for the coronavirus to infect our cells. They also can test how slight variations in the spike protein may influence SARS-CoV-2’s behavior. This work provides yet another stunning example of how scientists with widely varying expertise have banded together—using all the tools at their disposal—to forge ahead to find solutions to COVID-19.
Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.
Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.
With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August , NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine  offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.
These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.
What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.
The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.
It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.
Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C . They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.
It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C .
The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.
NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center
It is becoming apparent that our country is entering a new and troubling phase of the pandemic as SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, continues to spread across many states and reaches into both urban and rural communities. This growing community spread is hard to track because up to 40 percent of infected people seem to have no symptoms. They can pass the virus quickly and unsuspectingly to friends and family members who might be more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill. That’s why we should all be wearing masks when we go out of the house—none of us can be sure we’re not that asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
This new phase makes fast, accessible, affordable diagnostic testing a critical first step in helping people and communities. In recognition of this need, NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, just initiated in late April, has issued an urgent call to the nation’s inventors and innovators to develop fast, easy-to-use tests for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It brought a tremendous response, and NIH selected about 100 of the best concepts for an intense one-week “shark-tank” technology evaluation process.
Moving ahead at an unprecedented pace, NIH last week announced the first RADx projects to come through the deep dive with flying colors and enter the scale-up process necessary to provide additional rapid testing capacity to the U.S. public. As part of the RADx initiative, seven biomedical technology companies will receive a total of $248.7 million in federal stimulus funding to accelerate their efforts to scale up new lab-based and point-of-care technologies.
Four of these projects will aim to bolster the nation’s lab-based COVID-19 diagnostics capacity by tens of thousands of tests per day as soon as September and by millions by the end of the year. The other three will expand point-of-care testing for COVID-19, making results more rapidly and readily available in doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics, long-term care facilities, schools, child care centers, or even at home.
This is only a start, and we expect that more RADx projects will advance in the coming months and begin scaling up for wide-scale use. In the meantime, here’s an overview of the first seven projects developed through the initiative, which NIH is carrying out in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the Department of Defense:
Point-of-Care Testing Approaches
Mesa Biotech. Hand-held testing device detects the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2. Results are read from a removable, single-use cartridge in 30 minutes.
Quidel. Test kit detects protein (viral antigen) from SARS-CoV-2. Electronic analyzers provide results within 15 minutes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service has identified this technology for possible use in nursing homes.
Talis Biomedical. Compact testing instrument uses a multiplexed cartridge to detect the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 through isothermal amplification. Optical detection system delivers results in under 30 minutes.
Lab-based Testing Approaches
Ginkgo Bioworks. Automated system uses next-generation sequencing to scan patient samples for SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material. This system will be scaled up to make it possible to process tens of thousands of tests simultaneously and deliver results within one to two days. The company’s goal is to scale up to 50,000 tests per day in September and 100,000 per day by the end of 2020.
Helix OpCo. By combining bulk shipping of test kits and patient samples, automation, and next-generation sequencing of genetic material, the company’s goal is to process up to 50,000 samples per day by the end of September and 100,000 per day by the end of 2020.
Fluidigm. Microfluidics platform with the capacity to process thousands of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material per day. The company’s goal is to scale up this platform and deploy advanced integrated fluidic chips to provide tens to hundreds of thousands of new tests per day in the fall of 2020. Most tests will use saliva.
Mammoth Biosciences. System uses innovative CRISPR gene-editing technology to detect key pieces of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in patient samples. The company’s goal is to provide a multi-fold increase in testing capacity in commercial laboratories.
At the same time, on the treatment front, significant strides continue to be made by a remarkable public-private partnership called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). Since its formation in May, the partnership, which involves 20 biopharmaceutical companies, academic experts, and multiple federal agencies, has evaluated hundreds of therapeutic agents with potential application for COVID-19 and prioritized the most promising candidates.
Among the most exciting approaches are monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), which are biologic drugs derived from neutralizing antibodies isolated from people who’ve survived COVID-19. This week, the partnership launched two trials (one for COVID-19 inpatients, the other for COVID-19 outpatients) of a mAB called LY-CoV555, which was developed by Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN. It was discovered by Lilly’s development partner AbCellera Biologics Inc. Vancouver, Canada, in collaboration with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In addition to the support from ACTIV, both of the newly launched studies also receive support for Operation Warp Speed, the government’s multi-agency effort against COVID-19.
LY-CoV555 was derived from the immune cells of one of the very first survivors of COVID-19 in the United States. It targets the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, blocking it from attaching to human cells.
The first trial, which will look at both the safety and efficacy of the mAb for treating COVID-19, will involve about 300 individuals with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are hospitalized at facilities that are part of existing clinical trial networks. These volunteers will receive either an intravenous infusion of LY-CoV555 or a placebo solution. Five days later, their condition will be evaluated. If the initial data indicate that LY-CoV555 is safe and effective, the trial will transition immediately—and seamlessly—to enrolling an additional 700 participants with COVID-19, including some who are severely ill.
The second trial, which will evaluate how LY-CoV555 affects the early course of COVID-19, will involve 220 individuals with mild to moderate COVID-19 who don’t need to be hospitalized. In this study, participants will randomly receive either an intravenous infusion of LY-CoV555 or a placebo solution, and will be carefully monitored over the next 28 days. If the data indicate that LY-CoV555 is safe and shortens the course of COVID-19, the trial will then enroll an additional 1,780 outpatient volunteers and transition to a study that will more broadly evaluate its effectiveness.
Both trials are later expected to expand to include other experimental therapies under the same master study protocol. Master protocols allow coordinated and efficient evaluation of multiple investigational agents at multiple sites as the agents become available. These protocols are designed with a flexible, rapidly responsive framework to identify interventions that work, while reducing administrative burden and cost.
In addition, Lilly this week started a separate large-scale safety and efficacy trial to see if LY-CoV555 can be used to prevent COVID-19 in high-risk residents and staff at long-term care facilities. The study isn’t part of ACTIV.
NIH-funded researchers have been extremely busy over the past seven months, pursuing every avenue we can to detect, treat, and, ultimately, end this devasting pandemic. Far more work remains to be done, but as RADx and ACTIV exemplify, we’re making rapid progress through collaboration and a strong, sustained investment in scientific innovation.