Coronavirus outbreak: the impact of the healthcare industry to tackle the epidemic

Published on 20 February 2020 Read 25 min

Coronavirus, Wuhan. Unlike two months ago, these words are now on everyone’s mind. On December 31st, 2019, Chinese authorities reported for the first time an abnormally high number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. As of February 17th, 2020, there were already more than 70’000 cases and more than 1’500 deaths – the vast majority occurring in the epicenter of the epidemic, in China’s Hubei province. As the virus continues to hit the headlines, Alcimed presents some of the ongoing efforts to tackle this raging coronavirus epidemic.

COVID-19: the new viral strain from an already well-known viral family

The serious pneumonia-like viral infection, now called COVID-2019, is caused by a coronavirus. Coronaviruses get their name, corona, or crown, from their crown-like shape. These viruses cause respiratory infections that can range from mild (like the common cold) to severe, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrom (MERS). To put this new epidemic into perspective, it is now deadlier than SARS, which caused 774 deaths in 2002-2003 [1]. The new strain probably originated in wild animals, as it was the case with SARS and MERS, but health authorities still investigate which species the virus originated from. In addition to investigating the origin of the disease, many efforts are undertaken by health authorities and pharmaceutical companies.

Public health institutions around the world set up measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic

Chinese health authorities took impressive measures to treat patients and to contain the epidemic. Perhaps the most impressive measure taken in this regard was the media-publicized construction of a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan in just 10 days. Health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, are actively monitoring the situation and have issued valuable guidelines to be followed to protect each and everyone [2]. To track the progress of the disease, The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has also developed a popular website [3] which tracks all reported cases. Most notably, the first coronavirus-related death outside of Asia was reported in France on February 15th.

How does the industry tackle the coronavirus epidemic?

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are also involved in these efforts. On the diagnostic side, Novacyt, through one of its divisions Primerdesign, launched a test, on January 31st , that specifically detects the 2019 strain [4]. Roche has also donated diagnostic tests and medical supplies to the local Chinese health authorities [5]. On the therapeutic side, Gilead’s Remdesivir – an antiviral drug originally developed as a treatment for the Ebola virus – has shown promising results in vitro [6], and clinical trials have just been initiated in China [7]. Johnson & Johnson, through its subsidiary Janssen, has also announced the development a possible preventive vaccine candidate [8]. Moderna recently announced progress in the development of a prophylactic vaccine, with the first batch already being produced [9]. On February 18th, Sanofi announced the development of a vaccine in partnership with the U.S. government [10]. It is important to note that it will take several months to evaluate the safety and efficacy of these therapeutic and prophylactic measures.

Artificial intelligence to fight the outbreak

In addition to the measures presented earlier, artificial intelligence (AI) could also play a decisive role in preventing the spread of the epidemic. For instance, AI researchers have used machine-learning algorithms to detect the appearance of the virus and predict its spread [9]. BenevolentAI has also used AI to predict which available drugs could potentially be reused to treat COVID-19 [10]. Such digital approaches could be useful for prioritizing the testing of drug candidates under investigation. Given the urgency of the situation, they therefore represent an innovative way to support efforts to stop this epidemic.

Health authorities are doing their best to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Today, the pharmaceutical industry is already anticipating its possible spread in the coming weeks by developing curative medicine solutions. As the virus still progresses, Alcimed will continue to cover the latest developments in this coronavirus epidemic chapter.


About the authors

Lambert, Consultant, Alcimed Healthcare Lausanne Office
Quentin, Project Manager, Alcimed Healthcare Lausanne Office


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