The Race Is On to Find the Holy Grail of Covid-19 Antibodies
Lab-made antibodies could be our best hope against the pandemic — and future ones
Carl Hansen was in the middle of running a pandemic simulation at AbCellera, the Vancouver biotech company where he is CEO, when the first reports of a mysterious respiratory disease trickled out of China.
It was mid-January, and the Canadian company was testing how quickly it could find promising antibodies against the coronaviruses that cause MERS and SARS. Its goal was to identify and reproduce these antibodies — proteins produced by the immune system in response to an infection — within 60 days. But when the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was detected on January 21 in Washington state, Hansen cut that simulation short to focus on the new threat.
“Then the missing piece was to find a blood sample,” he tells OneZero. After AbCellera got its hands on a small vial of blood from an early U.S. Covid-19 patient on February 28, Hansen and his team immediately started looking for antibodies in it.
Now, he and other scientists are racing to find potent antibodies in the blood of human Covid-19 survivors, in lab mice, and in other animals. The hope is that the most effective ones — known as neutralizing antibodies — could be used to both treat people who are sick with the disease and also act as a kind of temporary vaccine for those who are at high risk of contracting it. Though one drug for Covid-19, remdesivir, was granted emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, experts say it’s not a knockout punch against the virus. With a vaccine at least a year away, more treatments will be needed.
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In the absence of a vaccine, some think lab-produced antibodies that mimic the real thing are the best hope for beating back the coronavirus, as well as any new infectious pathogens that could emerge in the future. When the body detects a foreign invader, like SARS-CoV-2, it mounts an immune response and starts making a host…