Costa Rica is a small, rather insignificant and out of the way middle-income Central American country. Yet in many respects it punches above its weight class. Two examples come to mind: the abolition of a standing army in 1949, and their soccer performance in 2014.
But, one area where Costa Rica excels matters a great deal in these times: scientific research, especially in the medical field. The Clodomiro Picado Institute is an internationally known research center in San José. Its namesake is a Costa Rican scientist who was one of the independent discoverers of the use of penicillin, having documented and used it to treat patients at least one year before its discovery by Alexander Fleming.
The institute is best known for its research and production of antivenoms to treat venomous snake bites. These antivenoms are in high demand, being exported to other tropical regions throughout the globe including Africa, Asia and Oceania.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, many of the institute’s resources have been re-purposed for combating this virus.
Convalescent Plasma Treatment
The first project is the development and use of convalescent plasma. This is where they take blood from donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies — proteins that the body uses to fight off the virus. Plasma is the liquid portion of the blood. This plasma is purified and tested before it is ready to be made into a treatment.
Researchers around the world, including Costa Rica, are hopeful that convalescent plasma can be effective for people with COVID-19 to boost their ability to fight the virus.
As of this writing, five patients in the country have been undergoing convalescent plasma treatments from blood donations. Three of them have shown marked improvement, one of whom has already recovered. Time will tell if this really improves outcomes for hospitalized patients, but the scientific rationale is there, and side effects for antibody treatments are generally not of major concern.
Equine Antibody Treatment
The second project is the harvesting of equine antibodies. This involves injecting horses with SARS-CoV-2 proteins, which does not seem to harm the horses, but causes their immune systems to produce antibodies that could be effective for combating COVID-19. The advantage is that horses can produce a much larger quantity of blood, and thus can treat more people.
Instituto Clodomiro Picado is working on this equine antibody treatment, to be ready to use on patients in a month’s time.
This is clearly a major step up on the international stage for Costa Rica. If successful, a treatment, made in Costa Rica, with local know-how and resources, could be exported throughout the world and possibly save the lives of hundreds of thousands as this pandemic burns through the susceptible population.
A Manhattan Project for Healing
During World War II, the Manhattan Project brought together some of the world’s foremost scientists to work on a top secret weapon. Many would argue that the atomic bomb ended the war sooner. Many would also argue that the existence of nuclear weapons resulted in the prevention of full-scale war by major powers due to the consequences (Mutually Assured Destruction), saving countless lives.
In his speech on June 5, Román Macaya, president of CCSS (Caja), praised the work of the institute and called their work our country’s Manhattan Project. This is Costa Rica’s Manhattan Project — for healing.