British Columbia·In Depth

Antivirals saved people from AIDS, so can they help with COVID-19?

AIDS was seen as a death sentence until powerful antiviral drugs were discovered. Now, a new generation of drugs is being developed to target COVID-19.

HIV/AIDS was once a death sentence but the virus is now treatable

a person works in a lab
Vancouver biotech firm AbCellera is looking for a COVID-19 cure. Just as it was with HIV, the search for a treatment will be measured in months and years, not weeks, scientists say. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Artist Tiko Kerr pulls down a large cardboard box from a shelf in his East Vancouver studio. It's overflowing with empty pill bottles.

"These are my meds. This is what keeps me alive."

The prominent artist was nearly killed by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In 2005, existing treatments were failing and the virus was running rampant in his bloodstream.

"I was putting my affairs in order; I didn't have a lot of hope."

He and other activists, backed by leading AIDS researcher, Dr. Julio Montaner, lobbied for access to experimental drugs in the hopes they would save Kerr and others on death's doorstep.

They won the noisy, public battle and the drugs — a new version of "the cocktail" mix of medications — worked. Kerr's viral load dropped dramatically within days.

Artist Tiko Kerr, who is living with HIV, is pictured in his studio in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"You can't kill a virus, but you can suppress it, and it's what's happened to me," Kerr said of his HIV infection, which still requires daily doses of drugs.

The drugs are so effective, HIV is now undetectable in his system.

Many viruses, including the common cold, can't be cured, while some, such as hepatitis C can be eliminated with antiviral drugs. 

Vaccines work to prevent some viruses, but don't help those already infected.

Virus cures elusive

Health experts have been warning for years about the threat posed by emerging viruses, and behind the scenes researchers have been getting ready.

"For two years we've had funding to prepare a technology for exactly this type of situation, and now we're ideally suited to respond quickly to this outbreak," said Carl Hansen, the CEO of AbCellera, on a recent tour of the rapidly growing Vancouver biotech company.

In the company's lab, high powered computers, artificial intelligence and sophisticated biological work are brought together in the search for substances that could be effective antivirals.

Ester Falconer heads research and development at AbCellera, which is looking for a COVID-19 cure. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The key is to study people who've been infected with COVID-19 and recovered, says Ester Falconer, the company's head of research and development.

"There's billions of different unique antibodies in any one given individual. So what our platform is really good at is being able to sort through those billions of differences to find exactly the antibodies we need."

Secret to cure inside the bloodstream

Recently the lab received a blood sample from a U.S. patient who had recovered from the disease. Within days they isolated more than 500 unique antibodies from that person.

"They have beaten it, the immune system has done its job and has cleared the virus, so in there they have the special sauce, essentially, to be able to clear that strain of virus. So that's where we want to look to find the therapeutics."

Those 500 antibodies will now be tested, along with the company's partner, multinational drug company Lilly. The potential virus-fighting substances were found after screening more than five million immune cells to look for functional antibodies.

"While typically a new therapeutic antibody program might take years to get in the clinic, our goal with AbCellera is to be testing potential new therapies in patients within the next four months," Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly's chief scientific officer, said in a written statement Thursday.

Just some of the empty pill bottles which held drugs that have kept artist Tiko Kerr alive. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Some of the company's funding comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the scientific research arm of the U.S. military.

Hansen says there's nothing nefarious about accepting the funding because the work is all about being able to respond quickly to new diseases.

He says it's the type of research for-profit drug companies don't invest a lot of money into.

"Something like emergency response to a pandemic is a place where the market doesn't serve biotech very well," says Hansen.

U.S. Defence department funding

"It's precisely for that reason initiatives such as DARPA, or some of the not-for-profit agencies, that are focused on exactly this problem are so important."

Meanwhile, soft light from grey skies illuminates a new drawing on the walls of Tiko Kerr's art studio.

His fingertips are black from a piece of charcoal and figures emerge on the paper as he quickly sketches a foot, a head, an arm.

Kerr incorporates empty pill bottles into his artwork, including this self-portrait. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Before art took over his life, he trained as a biologist and says he's worried about how long it might take to find a cure for COVID-19.

"I think it's going to take a while. I mean it took thirty, forty years in HIV for them to really find something that was going to be truly effective."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to AIDS as a virus.
    Mar 15, 2020 9:25 AM PT


Greg Rasmussen

National Reporter

Greg Rasmussen is a National Reporter for CBC news based in Vancouver. He's covered news stories across Canada and around the world for more than two decades. Follow him @CBCGreg on twitter.