Trailblazing Greek Australian Dr Vasso Apostolopoulos making strides in COVID-19 research

Coronavirus is spreading around the world, but treatments are lacking and there are still no vaccines to protect the body against the disease.

Dr Vasso Apostolopoulos and her team from Victoria University are working to change that.

She recognised the severity of COVID-19 right from the outset. “Close down the borders,” she had urged Australia’s governments in statements made at the time. But while she couldn’t affect government policies, she swiftly got to work doing what she does best – research.

Her research is split between two approaches: the repurposing of pre-existing drugs and the hunt for a vaccine.

Developing anti-viral drugs

“We’ve done quite a lot of work and we’ve identified a few hundred drugs that are already approved for human use for different disorders to be repurposed for coronavirus. We’ve screened the ones which could have antiviral activity,” Dr Apostolopoulos told Neos Kosmos, adding that there are some promising leads. She calculates that the results assessing the drugs’ effectiveness against the coronavirus in the lab could be ready within the next month and a half with the current university funding – even sooner should more money become available. “Donations will help fast-track our research, in the lab and translate the testing into humans.”

She describes the intricate and methodical process used by her team in collaboration with two universities in Greece and another in the United States (New Drug SA Greece, National Research Foundation Greece, Aquamem USA). “We do lab work to see how well the drugs work against parts of the virus, not the total virus, because we can’t grow the virus in the lab. We have progressed our research, and know that there are a lot of drugs out there that have the potential to kill the virus.”

After the team narrows down the best ten drugs that will have anti-viral activity in the lab, they will be ready for human testing which will mean a new wave of meticulous, highly regulated and monitored research.

Not one to sacrifice thoroughness for speed, Dr Apostolopoulos knows that other teams around the world are also rushing to find drugs that would kill the virus. She adds that it’s easy to fall into the trap of cutting corners to cut costs but also in response to the global desperation caused by thousands of dying every day. She prefers to save time by doing things right and ethically.

“We have the capability and the know-how and we’ve done a lot of the groundwork to identify which ones would be best to test on humans,” she said. However, funding is urgently required to fast track the research from lab to human testing.

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Sought-after vaccine

Finding a treatment is important for those who are COVID-19 positive, but developing a vaccine to put an end to COVID-19 once and for all would be true cause for celebration. On her part, Dr Apostolopoulos is doing all she can to make sure that the party happens sooner rather than later.

“There are quite a few labs in the world making vaccines, but the way you make it is also important,” she said.

“We don’t know which method is going to work for the coronavirus. Researchers have tried various methods previously. In 2002, we had SARS and in 2012 we had MERS, but none of them worked. This is the third coronavirus that has been transmitted from animals to humans. It is more infectious and completely different so it is hard to make a vaccine against it.”

Hard, but not impossible.

“I have experience in making vaccines in the last 25 years and all the knowledge with the immune system and immunology, I have come up with a method of developing a vaccine that is different to what everyone else is doing. Tests have already started.”
She points to tests that have begun in humans by another team this week. “They are using a different approach by mixing virus proteins with small virus like particles,” she said. “Mine uses a different method.”

The focus of the world on finding a vaccine is a positive thing for Dr Apostolopoulos. “The more that get tested, the better it is,” she says. “One of them will be a winner. It doesn’t matter whose work it is in finding the vaccine as long as something works.”

Then the world can get back to normal.

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Asked about the new normal we are currently experiencing as people go back to work, Dr Apostolopoulos leaves us with a warning. “If coronavirus started from one person that got infected and spread it to the whole world, what can happen with 2.9 million active cases who have coronavirus at the moment? Why are we rushing to go out?”

She believes that the easing of restrictions as the economy goes back to life would probably mean a second wave, probably worse than the first.

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