Patients with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing the most severe and life-threatening complications of COVID-19. One recent study showed that about half of COVID-19 deaths are caused by secondary infections such as bacterial pneumonia and sepsis.
Dr. Marcin Wojewodzic, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, reports that viruses known as bacteriophages have the potential to control dangerous bacterial infections.
Bacteriophages can infect and kill pathogens without harming human cells or beneficial bacteria. The viruses may ultimately be used as a safer alternative to antibiotic treatments.
Dr. Wojewodzic proposes two strategies for using bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections in COVID-19 patients. First, bacteriophages could target secondary bacterial infections in the patients’ respiratory systems. The viruses would reduce the spread of harmful bacteria, allowing the immune system to focus on producing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.
“By introducing bacteriophages, it may be possible to buy precious time for the patients’ immune systems and it also offers a different, or complementary strategy to the standard antibiotic therapies,” said Dr. Wojewodzic.
“If this strategy works, it will hopefully buy time to enable a patient to produce their own specific antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and thus reduce the damage caused by an excessive immunological reaction.”
Professor Martha R.J. Clokie is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal which published the systematic review.
“In the same way that we are used to the concept of ‘friendly bacteria’ we can harness ‘friendly viruses’ or ‘phages’ to help us target and kill secondary bacterial infections caused by a weakened immune system following viral attack from viruses such as COVID-19,” said Professor Clokie.
In the second treatment strategy, Dr. Wojewodzic suggests that synthetically altered bacteriophages could be used to manufacture antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These antibodies could be produced rapidly and inexpensively in the form of nasal or oral spray. Dr. Wojewodzic is calling for clinical trials to test the proposed treatment methods.
“This pandemic has shown us the power viruses have to cause harm. However, by using beneficial viruses as an indirect weapon against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and other pathogens, we can harness that power for a positive purpose and use it to save lives. The beauty of nature is that while it can kill us, it can also come to our rescue,” said Dr. Wojewodzic.
“It’s clear that no single intervention will eliminate COVID-19. In order to make progress we need to approach the problem from as many different angles and disciplines as possible.”
Dr. Antal Martinecz is an expert in computational pharmacology at the Arctic University of Norway, who finds the new research extremely hopeful.
“This is not only a different strategy to the standard antibiotic therapies but, more importantly, it is exciting news relating to the problem of bacterial resistance itself.”
The study is published in the journal PHAGE: Therapy, Applications, and Research.