Delays in screenings, diagnoses, treatments for non-COVID-19 patients could mean additional deaths
Non-coronavirus patients’ medical care has been “seriously compromised” since the COVID-19 outbreak first erupted, a leading medical professional has warned.
Dr. Sigal Kremer-Tal, chief clinical and regulatory officer of the Israeli vaccine company MigVax, says the medical sector – both in Israel and worldwide – responded quickly and diligently to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. Yet many patients suffering from other illnesses either canceled their treatments or saw them postponed.
“The main lesson is that non-COVID patients have gone through serious compromises in their care throughout this outbreak,” Kremer-Tal told The Media Line. “This is a lesson for both the patients as well as the caregivers in how to maintain routine medical care [during] an outbreak.”
Figures showing how health services around the globe have been disrupted by the outbreak have only recently begun to emerge.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that medical services have been partially or completely disrupted, with 49% of those countries surveyed reporting delays in treatment for diabetes or diabetes-related complications, and 42% reporting the same for cancer treatment. Rehabilitation services, which are crucial for those recovering from severe illnesses, have suffered in 63% of the countries surveyed.
Non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes or cancer, among many others) kill 41 million people each year, according to the WHO. This means that a potentially staggering number of non-coronavirus patients have not received the medical care they need.
“Both in Israel and worldwide, that is what’s happened,” Kremer-Tal affirmed.
“We need to find ways to address this,” she continued. “Maybe coronavirus patients should be treated in centers that are affiliated with, or close to, medical centers, so that medical centers can remain free to treat non-COVID-19 patients. It’s a logistical problem.”
In Israel, there is no comprehensive data to show the extent of disruptions in routine medical care. But 30% of 200 cancer patients who took part in a study conducted by researchers from the Oranim Academic College, Bar-Ilan University and the Ruth Vrobel Foundation reported canceling treatments out of concern over coronavirus infections.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that emergency room visits for non-coronavirus health issues plummeted in April. Across the board, the total number of visits to ERs dropped by 42% over the same period last year.
These disruptions are expected to continue for the foreseeable future until a viable vaccine is brought to market.
Kremer-Tal spoke to The Media Line ahead of her panel discussion at OurCrowd’s June 22 virtual Pandemic Innovation Conference, which is slated to bring together thousands of investors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from 80 countries.
A banner with the logo of the Pandemic Innovation Conference, being held virtually on June 22. (Courtesy)
OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based global investment platform, recently launched a $100 million fund aimed at bolstering startups that are developing medical, business and educational solutions to pandemics and other health emergencies.
“Given how the world has dramatically changed in four months, to a certain degree we’re benefiting from the massive digital transformation that is taking place everywhere,” Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, told The Media Line. “This crisis has not been terrible for all businesses.”
In April, OurCrowd announced that it would lead a $12 million investment round for MigVax. An affiliate of the state-sponsored Migal Galilee Research Institute located in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, the firm is currently in the process of developing an oral vaccine.
According to Kremer-Tal, MigVax is hoping for its oral vaccine to be market-ready within 12-18 months. The company is slated to start human trials for its vaccine by the end of the summer or the beginning of the fall, she added.
“Ultimately, the vaccine has to be safe, and there’s no compromise on this,” she said.
“Vaccine manufacturers,” she continued, “need to provide convincing safety data to the regulatory authorities in order to get licensed. MigVax-101 is an oral vaccine, and this means that it is likely to have a more favorable safety profile relative to other, injected vaccines. So we have a possible advantage here.”
Human trials by the end of summer or the fall. (Courtesy MigVax/OurCrowd)
Nevertheless, this does not mean that MigVax will reach market before everyone else.
“There’s room for more than one vaccine at the finish line…. There’s no single vaccine manufacturer that can get to the whole world at the same time,” Kremer-Tal said.
She adds that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health in the US, has already said that multiple vaccines would ultimately receive approval.
Healthcare professionals on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19 are expected to be the first in line to receive any new vaccine, she believes, followed by at-risk populations such as people who are over 60.
But there is some concern over the effectiveness of any potential vaccine. Scientists have struggled unsuccessfully for decades in their pursuit of vaccines to protect against a wide range of coronaviruses that cause the common cold, for instance.
“Common cold viruses are frequently caused by several coronaviruses, and they don’t generate good immunity. However, with this virus, [researchers] are taking into account that they want to nail down the immune system recognition,” Kremer-Tal admitted.
“With MigVax-101, we’re hitting the three arms of the immune system, and expected immunogenicity is going to be more robust,” she said.
Yet only time will tell.
“We are still getting acquainted with COVID-19,” she noted, “so we’ll know more [only] in the future.”