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Breakthrough coronavirus drug could give people temporary immunity

Published May 12th, 2020 1:32PM EDT
Coronavirus Treatment
Image: Robin Utrecht/Shutterstock

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  • More pharmaceutical companies are developing a new type of therapy for the novel coronavirus that uses an old treatment technique for infectious diseases.
  • Scientists are developing antibodies that could improve the recovery of COVID-19 patients and provide limited protection against infection.
  • The concept behind this type of treatment is based on antibody-rich plasma transfusion from survivors that has been effective in some severe COVID-19 cases.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

The past few months have brought us plenty of sorrow as the novel coronavirus reached all corners of the world. The number of new cases increased at an alarming rate from day to day, and COVID-19 has claimed more and more victims. But we’ve also witnessed an incredible response from the medical community, not just when it comes to treating patients. Companies are trying new therapies and conducting trials to determine whether existing drugs can be repurposed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 complications and death. On top of that, other researchers have been working on vaccines, and the first such drugs might be ready for mass deployment as early as 2021 in some regions if all goes well. Otherwise, the first vaccines might not arrive until late 2021, and even then they won’t be able to meet global demand. However, more and more teams are working on a new type of drug that has the potential to cure COVID-19 patients, and even offering some sort of limited immunity that could prevent infections.

These are COVID-19 antibody drugs, a therapy that’s similar to the transfusion of plasma from patients who have recovered. Unlike plasma, however, these drugs are synthetically generated in a lab and don’t require donors.

We’ve already reported about several antibody efforts that are underway in various markets. Five teams are working on antibody therapy in the US, and promising research also came out from Israel, Japan, and the Netherlands. These companies use all sorts of antibody development techniques, including repurposing antibodies from other animals like llamas for human use.

New reports reveal the effort to make drugs based on antibodies is even bigger than anticipated. South Korea might be the first country to develop such a drug, with local company Celltrion planning to start clinical trials in July. According to Business Korea, the company could become the world’s first drug developer to come up with an antibody-based medicine for COVID-19 patients.

Separately, Fast Company details similar projects from other pharmaceutical companies that are developing antibody drugs.

Regeneron, which we reported on a few days ago, has two antibody cocktails in development and will begin trials in June, even sooner than Celltrion. The latter is studying no less than 14 different antibodies. Regeneron says it could have hundreds of thousands of doses ready by August. The company’s strategy is to target the virus’s spike protein, which is what allows it to link up to receptors and invade human cells for replication.

GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology are working on two candidates, and Eli Lilly is working with AbCellera and Junshi Biosciences to develop antibodies. AstraZeneca, which has a promising vaccine in the works with the University of Oxford, is also working on antibodies. Vanderbilt University, also mentioned in a previous report, has antibody drugs in the works.

Sorrento partnered with Mount Sinai Medical Center for a “COVI-SHIELD” antibody drug that will use mutations to increase the life of three different antibodies. The combined antibodies should provide better protection if the virus mutates. The report notes that these drugs would not just boost the immune response in patients who are already infected with the novel coronavirus, and potentially speed up recovery — they could also give healthy people temporary immunity with limited use:

If the treatments are successful, they may be able to provide protection for as long as two months. Someone who has been working remotely could potentially get an antibody shot to help protect them as they return to the office, and then get another treatment in two months.

This is just theoretical at this point, as studies still have to prove the effectiveness of antibody therapy and plasma transfusions. But all the anecdotal evidence that we’ve witnessed so far suggests that plasma works on COVID-19 patients and artificial antibodies should have the same effect. Fast Company does note that in some cases, antibody treatments have worsened infections and that’s the kind of risk scientists will have to prepare for.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.