UCD researcher finds Irish drug works on Covid-19
With perfect timing, virologist and vet Dr Nicola Fletcher, pictured, began her Ad Astra fellowship in UCD in January 2020 - just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland. Having previously worked on SARS-1 and other high containment zoonotic diseases, she is now a leading light in UCD’s extraordinary Covid-19 response.
Preliminary results from Dr Fletcher’s lab have found that Irish antiviral drug ViroSAL, produced by Westgate Biomedical, is effective against Covid-19.
“I’ve been testing it against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, since the outbreak happened and we got full approval to work on the virus in our category 3 containment lab on campus,” says Dr Fletcher, who previously tested the drug on other viruses including SARS-1.
“We have just got our first data sets and it hasn’t been published yet but I can certainly say ViroSAL works against SARS-CoV-2 virus in cell culture. It seems to be antiviral which is really, really exciting.”
Using “really cool little 3D systems” she is growing cells from the human upper airway in the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine lab, infecting them with the virus and then applying ViroSAL. The drug has shown an inhibitory effect that may prove a breakthrough in the potential treatment of Covid-19 in its early stages.
“The idea is that you would nebulise or spray this formulation into the throat and it would coat the upper airway and stop the virus replicating in the early stages of infection,” she explains. In this way ViroSAL may potentially mitigate Covid-19’s progress to the lungs, which can cause pneumonia and lead to more serious or fatal illness.
“Next we have to check that there is no toxicity before starting Phase One trials in a small number of volunteers, followed then by testing in people recently infected with Covid-19.”
The team is working “as fast as we can” to move ViroSAL through this process but a product launch, Fletcher warns, may be still some way off.
“It is usually a couple of years from these sorts of discoveries to actually having an available drug. We have to be so careful to make sure the drugs we give patients are safe and effective and have minimal side-effects. It is a slow process but we need to be thorough. Unfortunately that is just the way it is. It’s the same for a vaccine. Everybody is desperate for a vaccine for Covid-19 but it would be dangerous if safety is not properly tested and that takes time.”
Dr Fletcher is also leading on a project with Beaumont hospital and the National Virus Reference Laboratory testing people’s blood for antibodies to determine whether, having had Covid-19, they are immune to the virus. This project is a collaboration with the University of Cambridge.
“I’ll be testing a large number of samples from people who were in Beaumont hospital and from health care workers there who caught the virus. If I mix the blood from these people with the virus and the virus is killed then I know they are immune. If it doesn’t, then they are not immune, even though they have had the infection, which would be quite disappointing.”
There are “two big questions” the team hopes to answer from this project: How long does immunity last after you have been infected? And have mild or asymptomatic cases had enough exposure to the virus to be protected from reinfection?
“We need to know the answers to these questions before we can lift Covid-19 restrictions completely.”
In the coming months, Fletcher and her colleagues will continue to test whether any antibodies found in participants’ blood wane or are maintained over time.
“What we know from other coronaviruses like the ones that cause the common cold is that your immunity does wane over time. So it will be interesting to see whether this is also the case with this virus.”
Dr Fletcher has made a remarkable impact in a few short months in UCD. In March she trained volunteer third year students to do Covid-19 testing in the Enfer lab in Kildare.
“I trained these students to inactivate the swabs following testing. They have to do this for all the swabs from all the centres across Ireland.”
A UCD Conway Institute Fellow, she credits its director Prof. William Gallagher for helping her hit the ground running.
“He has been the most incredible person to work with, putting me in touch with all these people who I can help and who can also help me get established. I look forward to the next few months, working with fantastic researchers at UCD and beyond to make discoveries that will allow us to tackle this pandemic."
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