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Infectious Diseases

Updated 16 April 2020

SA expert cautions on coronavirus treatment

Professor Salim Abdool Karim stresses that there are no treatments proven to fight the new coronavirus, but a lot of research is underway.

In the midst of the current global pandemic, feelings of uncertainty continue to rise. There is not yet any proven treatment against the new coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, but trials are ongoing.

South African Epidemiologist and Infectious Diseases Specialist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, told News24 that we are still in the early stages of understanding treatments for viruses.

“Unlike with [drug development for] bacteria… we don’t have the same historical track record of developing drugs against viruses. Against viruses, we’ve been successful only in the last three to four decades.

“Our ability to make drugs against viruses was not really well developed until HIV. But the problem is that these viruses are too different,” Karim explained.

Karim was appearing live on News24 Frontline in an exclusive Q&A session.

According to Karim, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has a unique enzyme that allows it to convert its RNA into DNA. Karim added that almost all the drugs that have been developed to fight HIV focused on this "reverse transcriptase", and these drugs therefore cannot be used to treat the new coronavirus as it doesn’t have that enzyme.

“The coronavirus doesn’t have reverse transcriptase. And so, all the HIV drugs work against an enzyme that coronavirus doesn’t use – it uses a completely different enzyme called an RNA polymerase.”

Current drugs' potential to fight Covid-19   

Karim explained that while there are many people who may have opinions and hypotheses about certain drugs that may work, there is no clear evidence that any of the drugs are effective at fighting the virus.

“Categorically, with no fear of contradiction, we have no evidence that any treatment is effective against the coronavirus. That bar has not been passed for any drug. Having said that, there are many drugs being developed, and there are many drugs in clinical trials, so there’s no question that there’s a lot of research underway to find a drug treatment, but that’s a very different thing from saying we have drug treatment, because we don’t.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and partners launched Solidarity, an international clinical trial whose aim is to find an effective treatment for Covid-19, and will compare four treatment options. According to their website, as of 8 April 2020, “over 90 countries are working together to find effective therapeutics as soon as possible, via the trial”.

‘You don’t need vitamins to have good immunity against the virus’

On the topic of managing infected patients, Karim said they are being treated on the basis of their symptoms. 

“So if you have fever, we give you an antipyretic. If you have a cough, we’ll treat your cough. We treat you in order to ameliorate your symptoms. And we treat you in a supportive way. We support you in a way you can develop your own antibodies, and fight this virus with your own immune system. It’s as simple as that.”

Karim added that we all have the immunity that’s required to fight the virus:

“You don’t need to take vitamins or anything to have good immunity against this virus. You have it. When you get the virus, your body will produce these antibodies automatically.”