A white llama head. The background is blurry

COVID Booster: Drug repurposing, llama antibodies and COVID-coding teens

Indigenous people must lead COVID recovery for Indigenous communities

A paper in the Australian Journal of Social Issues argues that self-determination is critical for Indigenous communities’ recovery from COVID-19.

The paper, written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, health experts and community leaders, proposes a framework for Indigenous recovery from COVID-19.

They highlight the initial success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ response to COVID-19, with zero Indigenous deaths from COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic (although the virus has now spread to Indigenous communities in western NSW). But they stress that Indigenous people have still faced inequitable mental health and well-being consequences from the pandemic.

“Historically, and as evidenced in other parts of the world now, pandemics have disproportionately affected Indigenous peoples, who already face significant health disparities and systemic disadvantage,” write the authors.

“Over the last year, Indigenous leaders and organisations have demonstrated that there is the capacity and capability in the community-controlled sector to respond to crisis and disaster, efficiently and effectively.

“These responses represent the strongest evidence to date that the most effective strategy for the health of Indigenous peoples is the full expression of Indigenous self-determination.”

Drug repurposing won’t find silver bullets

Existing medications are popular potential candidates for COVID-19 treatment, because we know they’re safe for people to take and they’re known to work on some medical conditions. A whole host of existing drugs have been trialled against SARS-CoV-2 – some of which, like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, have sparked sagas well beyond the scientific sphere.

But a group of Australian researchers stress that we won’t find easy cures in medications designed for other diseases – and, as has been borne out by hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, there are risks to placing too much faith in these drugs.

“Drug repurposing is seldom as trivial as taking the approved drug and performing a clinical trial in a different disease using the same dose and dosing schedule,” says Dr Glenn Begley, lead author on a paper in Science Translational Medicine.

“It requires new preclinical safety and efficacy studies, appropriately designed phase I and II studies, regulatory authority oversight and typically the establishment of new IP. The failure rate, costs and time involved is similar for new drug development. It’s no quick fix.”

Llama antibodies might help, though

A llama named Fifi has provided a therapy that has shown promising results in early trials against COVID-19.

Llamas produce “nanobodies” – smaller versions of antibodies. When vaccinated with SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins (not the full coronavirus), the llamas produced nanobodies that could be harvested for treatment against COVID-19.

A group of UK researchers have tested these nanobodies in hamsters as a nasal spray, finding they provoke an immune response and are safe for the rodents to take. They also found that the nanobodies bind particularly well to different strains of SARS-CoV-2.

While it’s still very early in the treatment’s testing, the researchers say they’re excited about their llama-based therapy.

In a paper describing their research, published in Nature Communications, the researchers say their antibodies “may improve resilience in combating new variants of the virus”.

Contact-tracing apps could help target vaccination strategies

If there’s a limited supply of vaccines, it can be helpful to target people who have the most contact with others. These people aren’t always easy to spot, however – vaccinating certain professions or demographics will miss some people.

A group of Canadian researchers have suggested that contact-tracing Bluetooth apps, like the federal government’s COVIDSafe app, could be used to spot potential superspreaders and target those people for vaccination. If these people were targeted, their modelling suggests, a lower number of vaccination doses would be needed to reach herd immunity – possibly even half as many.

In their paper, published in PLOS One, the researchers argue that digital contact tracing apps are already widespread enough that they can provide useful epidemiological information without compromising privacy, and that it’s feasible to use these apps to “hotspot” vaccinations.

The three single-dosed teenagers keeping Australia informed on COVID

The website COVIDBaseAu has been providing succinct, automated updates on case and vaccination numbers Australia-wide for over six months. On Thursday, the operators of the site announced they’d finally gotten their first dose of a COVID vaccine. Why did it take them so long to get one, given they’re so interested in vaccination numbers? They’ve only just become eligible – they’re in the 12–15 age bracket.

Jack (15), Darcy (15), and Wesley (14), all Melbourne-based high school students, posted a photo of themselves to their Twitter account, revealing their identities for the first time.

“Thrilled that we will finally be included in our data!” they write.

The teenagers have received praise from a host of epidemiologists, journalists and modellers for their sophisticated coding – and at least one job offer from the Burnet Institute.