Gates Foundation funds KU Leuven test for coronavirus treatment


The Gates Foundation in the US is funding a research project at KU Leuven’s Rega Institute that will see 15,000 anti-viral samples tested in just two weeks

Treatment on the horizon?

KU Leuven’s Rega Institute for Medical Research is launching a test project into drug therapies for the Covid-19 virus. The project is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US.

The Gates Foundation has arranged a shipment of 15,000 molecular samples, all of which contain antivirals, to be shipped to the institute. An automated lab will test all of them for their potential to impact the symptoms of the Covid-19 coronavirus. That process will take less than two weeks.

Leuven is thus joining other laboratories around the world in searching for an anti-viral or a combination of anti-viral ingredients that will work against the virus. “We are not looking to develop a completely new drug because that takes about 10 years,” professor Johan Neyts of the Rega Institute told VRT. “What we are doing is searching in a group of 15,000 samples of active ingredients in other medications.”

Not a vaccine

These samples were not specifically created to fight the coronavirus, he explained, “but we will look into whether there are substances that can relieve the symptoms of the virus. If we find them, they can be used very quickly to treat those who are sick.”

To be clear, this is about a treatment for those who are infected with the virus, not about a vaccine. Neyts said that it will take just a week or two to test all of the samples. That’s because the Rega Institute is equipped with an automated lab that operates 24-hours a day. This is why the lab was chosen to carry out the study.

“Robots and medical devices will do most of the work, and that happens very fast,” he said. “Next to the 15,000 samples that we have received from the US, we are going to test 3,500 from our own collection. We have an advantage over other studies taking place because of our unique facilities.”

Individual substances will probably not turn out to be useful. We are looking for the right combination of substances

- Professor Johan Neyts

Any kind of treatment would arise from a combination of different substances, explained Neyts. “Individual substances will probably not turn out to be useful. We are looking for the right combination of substances.”

If a combination of ingredients appears to be effective in fighting the coronavirus, the mixture would have to be tested on animals first and then on a select group of patients before being released. How long that test phase would last remains unclear.

Scientists around the world are also working on a vaccine to prevent people from getting the virus, but that is expected to take 18 months.

There are currently 23 people sick with the coronavirus in Belgium. All but one had returned from a holiday or business trip to northern Italy, which is struggling with an outbreak of the epidemic.

Photo: Researchers at the Rega Institute can work in a separate space than the viruses being tested
©Anja Symons/KU Leuven