Australia behind world-first research into how to protect vulnerable people from coronavirus

The study will examine COVID-19-positive patients who are also living with a compromised immune system, to try to understand more about how the disease affects them.

In a world first, Australian scientists and doctors from across disciplines are coming together to study the impact of coronavirus on immunocompromised people.

In a world first, Australian scientists and doctors from across disciplines are coming together to study the impact of coronavirus on immunocompromised people. Source: AAP

As the coronavirus continues to burden health systems around the world, scientists are desperately trying to learn more about the highly infectious disease, from who is more susceptible, to how to best treat it.

But one thing health professionals have been quick to identify is its threat to immunocompromised people - individuals with a weaker immune system.

Australians who are immunocompromised have had to be extra vigilant since the outbreak began, given their susceptibility to getting sick.
Source: AAP

They've had to be extra vigilant since the beginning of the outbreak, given their susceptibility to getting sick, and include individuals who are undergoing cancer treatment, organ transplant recipients, people living with HIV or those taking part in some kind of immunosuppressive therapy.

In a world first, a group of Australian scientists and doctors from across health disciplines are coming together to study the impact of coronavirus on immunocompromised people, and look into the use of existing treatments that could be protective against COVID-19.

The results should enable us to better protect some of those most vulnerable to the virus. Scientists may also discover life-saving information on how changes to the immune system affects its response to coronavirus. 

Spearheaded by the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney, the data will be collected and analysed in multiple hospitals, clinics and labs across Australia, including St Vincent’s Hospital and the Garvan Institute.

The study plans to enrol any patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are living with a compromised immune system from certain pre-existing diseases, or medications.

Dr Barbara Withers, a haematologist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, is one of the people involved in the study.

She will lead the analysis of coronavirus in people with cancer.

"They are more prone to infections across the board, and we know viral respiratory infections are common and can be quite deadly," Dr Withers told SBS News.

Because COVID-19 evolved so quickly, there has been little concrete data so far for health professionals to work with.

The study will enrol any patients who are COVID-19 positive and have a compromised immune system from a certain treatment or pre-existing condition.
Source: AAP

“Covid has turned everything on its head. A lot of our information is coming from social media, and first hand reports,” she said.

“Trying to work out what’s reliable data and what isn’t, is difficult."

Dr Withers said it makes this new research all the more important.

“We think it’s important to put this clinical trial protocol in place, so we’re generating reliable data so we can hopefully help our patients in future.”

Darshini Ayton (L) lives with type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Source: Supplied.

Anxiety and loneliness

For 36-year-old Melbourne woman Darshini Ayton, the news of this research is “amazing”.

She lives with Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, both of which compromise the immune system. She has found managing her health during the pandemic, both mentally and physically, to be “tough”.

“It’s a massive mind game that plays on you,” she told SBS News.

“You’re managing your own anxiety about getting Covid, but also managing the people around you to make them understand why you need to take it seriously.”

She said she "sympathises" will all immunocompromised people during this time as it can be "lonely".

She said she welcomes any studies into how to improve to outcomes for immunocompromised people who may contract COVID-19.

Ms Ayton still goes to get her regular blood tests and other medical appointments.
Source: Supplied.

“We are a very vulnerable group and often research excludes us,” she said.

“The fact that this research, firstly, is being run in Australia, and secondly, that they’re focusing on people with an immunocompromised status, is amazing.”

Important information

Dr Withers has seen firsthand the stress of her cancer patients who fear contracting coronavirus while immunocompromised.

“That level of anxiety is difficult for patients,” she said.

“It drives our feeling of wanting to get the best data available so we can tell them what their risk is, whether treatment might affect their risk and how severe the disease might be if they do catch it,” Dr Withers said.

The research will also investigate whether certain immune therapies may actually help in lessening the severity of coronavirus, rather than worsening it.

Some research into antiviral agents used to control the HIV virus has suggested it may also modulate the activity of the coronavirus, or even prevent patients HIV developing the infection.

It’s still early days, but it’s possibilities like these that the study aims to explore.

“If we do find out that any of the medications that we normally use for immunosuppression might modulate the behaviour of the virus, that would all be very important information for our patients to know,” Dr Withers said.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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Published 17 April 2020 at 4:33pm, updated 17 April 2020 at 4:41pm
By Amelia Dunn