WATERLOO -- A new research program led by a Wilfrid Laurier University professor is aiming to help health-care workers harness their own immune systems to protect them from COVID-19.

Stephanie DeWitte-Orr, an associate professor in Laurier’s Departments of Health Sciences and Biology, is leading a team conducting pre-clinical testing on two drugs that could be used to prevent respiratory virus infection.

“The immune system is our first line of defence against any sort of illness,” says DeWitte-Orr in a news release on Monday. “These two drugs have been shown to stimulate our immune systems and, when that happens, it is almost impossible for a virus to breach our airways.

“If a healthcare worker was to take one of these drugs through an inhaler, it could essentially act as a biological mask instead of a physical one.”

Even though Laurier suspended laboratory-based research in March due to the pandemic, exceptions are being made for studies that may help stop the spread of COVID-19.

According to a news release, the team of virologists is growing a strain of coronavirus similar to COVID-19 in their laboratory. The strain is then tested on the drugs to see if they are responsive and, if so, what dosage is needed.

One of the drugs has previously been found to be effective against infectious viruses like influenza virus and Ebola virus in human cells.

“During an outbreak like COVID-19, there is an immediate need for preventative treatments that are broad-spectrum and quickly deployable to fill the long gap until a vaccine is developed,” said DeWitte-Orr. “An off-the-shelf, inhalable antiviral drug would be a valuable tool globally to not only prevent the spread of COVID-19, but future respiratory outbreaks.”

Officials say there still are many trial stages ahead before either drug makes its way into the healthcare system.

“This is brand new, cutting-edge research. No one else is doing this,” said DeWitte-Orr. “It’s exciting that our local research team is contributing to the global knowledge of this virus.”