Synthetic antibodies might offer a quick coronavirus treatment

Laura Ramirez
Reporter/Producer

In the search for a treatment for COVID-19, researchers are exploring a wide range of approaches, including antibiotics (which ordinarily aren’t effective against viruses), a drug used for malaria (also not a virus) and of course the gold standard for viral disease, a vaccine (which is probably at least a year away). Another approach is to harvest antibodies, protective substances produced in response to an infection, from the blood plasma of people who have been infected.

That, however, is a slow process, and there are no guarantees it will work; you have to recruit patients to donate plasma, and then collect and process it into a form that can be used therapeutically.  

Dr. Jacob Glanville, one of the researchers featured in the Netflix documentary “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” thinks he has found a shortcut. Glanville is the president of Distributed Bio, a computational immunoengineering group that focuses on making antibody therapeutics and vaccines. For weeks, Glanville and his team braved long shifts in the lab to engineer a possible treatment for COVID-19, and last Wednesday, April 1, he announced via Twitter that they had achieved a breakthrough. Yahoo News spoke to the scientist that evening.

“For the last nine weeks we have been working on creating an antibody therapy to neutralize and therefore cure the novel coronavirus in patients who need it.”

Antibodies are proteins that are produced by the immune system to help stop intruders and pathogens, such the coronavirus, in order to prevent sickness and harm.

“We are engineering very specific antibodies that are really good at this, to be able to go block the virus.”

Glanville told Yahoo News that in order to save time and arrive at these results, he went back to antibodies that had proven effective 18 years ago in the fight against SARS.  

“The SARS virus is a cousin of the novel coronavirus. They’re related to each other. The antibodies that bound SARS were well studied. They were known to neutralize it and protect it, so they would be good medicine if SARS ever came back.” 

Artwork of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus. (Science Photo Library via Getty Images)


Distributed Bio was successful at finding five SARS antibodies that after being modified were able to bind to receptors of the novel coronavirus. “We've got amazing cross-neutralizing antibodies. They hit the novel coronavirus.” The concept is that the antibodies attach to receptors on the virus that prevent them from entering and infecting human cells. 

On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours after Glanville claimed to have found a possible treatment, Fox News’ John Roberts asked the nation’s top coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci during the daily White House coronavirus briefing about Glanville’s findings.

“I don’t know this specific individual, what they’re doing, but I can tell you there’s a lot of activity that is centered around a passive transfer of antibodies,” Fauci told the reporter. 

He also added that what Glanville was doing was not new. “This is an old concept. ... In fact, immunology was born decades and decades ago with the concept of giving passive transfer of serum to an individual to protect them from infection, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he and a number of other people are pursuing this. It’s the right thing to do.”

The COVID-19 treatment Glanville is proposing is not a vaccine, which Dr. Fauci believes would be “the ultimate game changer” for a virus that might come back. The vaccine trial, the White House health adviser said on Wednesday, is “on track,” with public distribution projected in “a year, a year and half.” 

This treatment is similar in concept to COVID-19 convalescent plasma or hyperimmune globulin therapies, which are currently being tested, according to an FDA announcement last Friday. They involve the passive transfer of antibodies. This treatment differs however, in that it does not require plasma from patients who have already beaten the disease, but can be manufactured synthetically, a much more efficient process. 

It also is effective immediately, Glanville said. “With a vaccine, that shot has little pieces of the virus in it, and so when you get injected with it, your immune system starts to learn how to attack those pieces of the virus, and that takes time; that takes many weeks, might be six or seven weeks before you have protection with an antibody. With a therapeutic, that syringe or IV bag contains the antibodies directly. So when they infuse it into you, your body doesn't need to do anything.”

This could be beneficial to first responders and health care workers on the frontlines fighting the disease. Also, it could potentially be used as a treatment in patients who are already sick, who would get no benefit from a vaccine. Finally, it could be used in immunocompromised patients who have trouble producing an immune response to a vaccine. 

Aspen Ambulance District paramedic Lisa Hicks wears a powered air purifying respirator and a Tyvek suit next to an ambulance in the ambulance bay in Aspen, Colo. on April 3, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via AP)

Despite these benefits, a vaccine is still the gold standard. “A vaccine could give you a year, even up to five years of protection, where an antibody, when you inject them into your body, they only really last about eight weeks, maybe 10 weeks,” Glanville explained. 

According to CDC modeling, between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could contract COVID-19 over the course of this pandemic, and some of the CDC’s forecasts suggest that 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization. 

Dr. Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Yahoo News that he sees benefit in using a treatment like the one Distributed Bio has brought forward.

“What Dr. Glanville is talking about is a very plausible approach. ... This is a bridge to protect some people who are ill, to protect any people on the frontlines, to protect law enforcement or firefighters and to protect our military. This is a bridge to a vaccine.” 

Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday also spoke about the advantages of having a treatment or drug like this available soon, in order to achieve quicker economic recovery. 

“We are not going to see a V-shape recovery or a quick snapback absent the ability to get a highly effective drug in the hands of doctors that can mitigate the risk, either used as a prophylaxis to prevent infection in people who get exposed to this virus or treat people who get the virus and are at a high risk of a bad outcome. ... And there are things that are promising right now that could be brought forward more quickly. But absent that, this is going to be an 80 percent economy.”

Although this treatment appears promising, there is still a long way to go before it can be offered to the public. First, it will be sent to the military, which can safely test it on live coronavirus and give its stamp of approval. Charles River Laboratories will then assess its safety and toxicity. Finally, there will need to be human trials to measure efficacy and determine the best dose. Glanville hopes that those trials can be accelerated for this summer in order to have the therapy available by the fall. There are many challenges to be met before this can come to fruition, but Moreno appears confident that progress is being made.  

“We should be reasonably optimistic and we should be very happy that I think the right buttons are being pushed with respect to this potential therapy,” he said.

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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