Manufactured antibodies could be next big Covid-19 treatment

Drugmakers are confident that the right combination can alter the course of the disease

As the world awaits a Covid-19 vaccine, the next big advance in battling the pandemic could come from a class of biotech therapies widely used against cancer and other disorders - antibodies designed specifically to attack this new virus, Reuters reported.

So far development of monoclonal antibodies to target the virus has been endorsed by leading scientists. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, called them “almost a sure bet” against Covid-19.

When a virus gets past the body’s initial defenses, a more specific response kicks in, triggering production of cells that target the invader. These include antibodies that recognize and lock onto a virus, preventing the infection from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies - grown in bioreactor vats - are copies of these naturally-occurring proteins.

Scientists are still working out the exact role of neutralising antibodies in recovery from Covid-19, but drugmakers are confident that the right antibodies or a combination can alter the course of the disease.

“Antibodies can block infectivity. That is a fact,” Regeneron Pharmaceuticals executive Christos Kyratsous told Reuters. Regeneron is testing a two-antibody cocktail, which it believes limits the ability of the virus’ to escape better than one, with data on its efficacy expected by late summer or early fall. “Protection will wane over time. Dosing is something we don’t know yet,” Kyratsous said. The US government in June awarded Regeneron a $450m supply contract. The company said it can immediately begin production at its US plant if regulators approve the treatment.

Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Amgen, and GlaxoSmithKline were cleared by the US government to pool manufacturing resources in order to scale up supplies if any of these drugs prove successful. Even with that unusual cooperation among rivals, manufacturing these medicines is complex and capacity is limited. There is also a debate over whether a single antibody will be powerful enough to stop Covid-19.

AstraZeneca said it plans to start human trials of its dual-antibody combination within weeks. Lilly, which began human testing in June of two antibody candidates in separate trials, is focusing on a one-drug approach. “If you need a higher dosage or more antibodies, fewer people can be treated,” Lilly Chief Scientific Officer Dan Skovronsky said.

Unlike vaccines, which activate the body’s own immune system, the impact of infused antibodies eventually dissipates. Still, drugmakers say monoclonal antibodies could temporarily prevent infection in at-risk people such as medical workers and the elderly. They could also be used as a therapeutic bridge until vaccines become widely available.

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