Tiny lung organoids can be used to rapidly screen drugs and identify those with potential as Covid-19 treatments.

A scientist works in a laboratory where a vaccine against the Covid-19 is being produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group's facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, June 24, 2020.
A scientist works in a laboratory where a vaccine against the Covid-19 is being produced at the Oxford Vaccine Group's facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, June 24, 2020. (Reuters)

The following is a round-up of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Miniature lungs, colons help test treatments

Tiny organ-like structures grown in the laboratory to behave like human lungs and colons can be used to rapidly screen drugs and identify those with potential as Covid-19 treatments, researchers reported on Wednesday in Nature. 

Compared with traditional pre-clinical approaches, in which drugs are tested in cells from monkeys or from human cancer patients, these so-called organoids more faithfully mimic the complex cell types and structure of human tissues, according to Dr Shuibing Chen and Dr Robert Schwartz of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

Their team developed organoids containing types of lung and colon cells that are known to become infected in people with Covid-19. In collaboration with teams at Columbia University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, they screened 1,200 FDA-approved drugs and found three that showed activity against the novel coronavirus, including the cancer drug imatinib, sold as Gleevec by Novartis. It is currently being tested in four different Covid-19 clinical trials.

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GI symptoms linked with more severe infection

Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are associated with more severe Covid-19 and worse outcomes, two research teams reported on Monday, a reversal of earlier data that suggested the opposite was true. 

One team reviewed 38 earlier studies of a total of more than 8,400 patients and found those with diarrhoea were 63 percent more likely to develop severe Covid-19. Dr Subash Ghimire of Guthrie Robert Packer Hospital in Pennsylvania suggested that patients with diarrhoea may have higher viral loads, which can potentially lead the body to fight back with more severe responses. 

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The other team studied 921 patients and found that the roughly 22 percent with at least one GI symptom had higher rates of hospital and intensive-care unit admissions and greater need for mechanical breathing assistance. The more GI symptoms patients had, the more their risk for these outcomes increased, Dr Darbaz Adnan of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reported. 

He said doctors evaluating Covid-19 patients need to bear in mind that GI symptoms may signal a markedly higher risk of a worsened disease course. Both studies were presented at the American College of Gastroenterology virtual annual meeting. 

UK population with Covid-19 antibodies is shrinking

A new wave of coronavirus infections has been spreading in the UK, but the proportion of the population there with antibodies to the virus has been shrinking, new data show. 

But experts said on Thursday that does not mean protection offered by coronavirus vaccines will be weak or short-lived.

In a report posted on Tuesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review, scientists at Imperial College London say that while 6 percent of the population had Covid-19 antibodies around the end of June, that rate fell to just 4.4 percent in September. 

Antibodies are not the body's only line of defence. Also important are immune cells called T cells and B cells that stimulate antibody production. 

"On the balance of evidence I would say, with what we know for other coronaviruses, it would look as if immunity declines away at the same rate as antibodies decline away, and that this is an indication of waning immunity at the population level," said study coauthor Wendy Barclay in a news briefing. 

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World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said uncertainty over how long immunity would last and the fact most people had never had antibodies against this coronavirus shows the need to break transmission chains.

"Acquiring this collective immunity just by letting virus run through the population is not really an option," he told a UN briefing in Geneva. 

Scientists identify prolific strain

A coronavirus strain that emerged in Spain in June has spread across Europe and now makes up a large proportion of infections in several countries, researchers said.

The variant, which has not been found to be inherently more dangerous, was first identified among farm workers in the eastern Spanish regions of Aragon and Catalonia.

Over the last two months, it has accounted for close to 90 percent of new infections in Spain, according to the research paper, authored by seven researchers with backing by Swiss and Spanish public-sector science institutions.

It is yet to be peer reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

The strain has crossed European borders and accounted for 40 to 70 percent of new infections in Switzerland, Ireland and the United Kingdom in September, they found.

The scientists said the strain's characteristic mutation did not give it any apparent edge and its success may be down to the people who caught it first being particularly mobile and sociable.

Source: Reuters