In an extensive interview with CNN Radio Argentina, Jorge Diener, Associate Director of Hadassah International, was asked to respond to how Israel and the Hadassah Hospitals have experienced COVID-19; what progress Hadassah has made in terms of drug research and innovations; and how advances in the fight against COVID-19 are helping Israel to return to a more normal life.
Jorge started the interview by stating: “We are facing a virus of historical categories that goes beyond the last pandemic, the last virus that was in 1918. We are talking about one of the most aggressive and difficult to understand viruses that has appeared in recent years.”
Jorge affirmed that one of the most prestigious doctors in the world has declared that “there is still no clear answer to practically anything. There are so many unknowns.”
“We do not even know if the immunity conferred by antibodies against the coronavirus in those who have already had the disease can generate permanent immunity. We do not know if we can really use those antibodies to cure other seriously ill people. We are experimenting. This is a virus that surprises all the time”.
Asked about the widely different symptoms that occur in different patients, Jorge said:
“We are talking about a disease that is much more complex than simply a respiratory disease. This means that we must organize ourselves across many specialties to treat this disease. It means that we not only need respirators, but that we also need to prepare hospital facilities to be able to care for all the other symptoms and conditions generated by this virus”.
Speaking about the advances in research at the Hadassah Medical Center, Jorge explained that the Medical Center is Israel’s leading medical research center, and accounts for 60% of the medical research done in Israeli hospitals. Hadassah has a group of 700 medical researchers.
Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are 160 different avenues of research being pursued worldwide, examining existing drugs that might be beneficial to helping COVID-19 patients. Hadassah is actively doing research on 16 of these drugs. That means that the Hadassah Hospital is involved in 10% of the total research on these existing drugs!”
Jorge stated that the medicines being used to treat COVID-19 patients at Hadassah have already been approved for other types of diseases. This allows for a shorter timeframe to determine if they are effective. If you had to start with a medication that has not been approved, the process would take years.
“It is easier to receive permission to use a medicine that is already approved, especially when you know its side effects and the damage that it can cause to a patient.”
Regarding the avenues of COVID-19 Research that Hadassah is currently working on, Jorge explained “Hadassah is involved in finding drugs that work in three different ways on the disease:
- Antiviral drugs that work directly on the virus.
- Drugs that work not on the virus but on the immune system’s reaction to the virus. One of the problems with the disease is that the immune system sometimes reacts violently, producing well documented anti-immunological storms that make a moderately ill patient take a turn for the worse and become a seriously ill patient. There are drugs that can modulate the body’s natural immune reaction to defend against the virus so that the body does not over-react.
- And then there are the drugs that are needed when the patient is already in an acute and serious situation. They are simply used to help to control the spread of the virus.”
Diener stated that it is important to remember that all this research is still experimental.
Even though Israel is a place with extensive knowledge and high hopes that medical solutions will eventually be found, including a COVID-19 vaccine, any progress must be announced with extreme care because everything is in the experimental stage for now. And until something can be proven to work 100 percent, you can’t say the solution has been found.
Returning to the issue of the complexity of this disease, Diener explained that each patient presents a different clinical picture. There is not and will not be a single drug, remedy or therapy that will cure everyone. “If we find a vaccine, the vaccine will work. However different treatments are needed for different patients. The best thing we can do is to continue looking for more effective solutions than are currently available.”
Talking about the pancreatitis drug being tested at Hadassah to control COVID-19, Diener said it was a drug which works as a wall in the case of pancreatitis, blocking the entry of the virus. In addition, there was a study done in Germany where it was found that this drug also stopped the virus from entering lung tissue. Because of these findings, Hadassah’s experts decided to test the drug as an option to curb COVID-19.
“If this drug can be made to form a wall in the tissue of healthy cells, then the virus would not be able to even enter the lung. We would be able to prevent a patient in an initial or moderate stage of the disease from progressing to becoming a serious case.”
Although this has worked so far for patients who have been tested, further testing will still be required to reach a larger number of patients to confirm the success of this research.
Diener discussed how Israel is returning to normal. He explained that Israel is in a “period of gradual and moderate liberation from restrictions. The conditions of social distancing, the use of masks, and all hygiene measures must still be followed. This relaxation of restrictions is all possible thanks to the positive results that have been achieved. The rate of contagion is much lower, which is the desired objective.”
He calculates that in two or three weeks, almost all the activity, economic, educational, social and cultural, will be allowed, with a new normality.
“In Israel we are already entering the summer and although it is not proven that the virus is not transmitted in the heat, the hypothesis is that the transmission is less than in colder climates.