The Race for a Super-Antibody Against the Coronavirus
A network of scientists is chasing the pandemic’s holy grail: an antibody that protects against not just the virus, but also related pathogens that may threaten humans.
Dr. Kartik Chandran, the principal investigator of the Prometheus collaboration of scientists, who are researching monoclonal antibodies as a treatment for Covid-19.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times
By Apoorva Mandavilli
Even as vaccines are hailed as our best hope against the coronavirus, dozens of scientific groups are working on an alternate defense: monoclonal antibodies. These therapies shot to prominence just this month after President Trump got an infusion of an antibody cocktail made by Regeneron and credited it for his apparent recovery, even calling it a “cure.”
Monoclonal antibodies are distilled from the blood of patients who have recovered from the virus. Ideally, antibodies infused early in the course of infection — or even before exposure, as a preventive — may provide swift immunity.
An enthusiastic Mr. Trump has promised to distribute these experimental drugs free to anyone who needs them. But they are difficult and expensive to produce. At the moment, Regeneron has enough to treat only 50,000 patients; the supply is unlikely to exceed a few million doses in the foreseeable future.
Dozens of companies and academic groups are racing to develop antibody therapies. Already Regeneron and the drug company Eli Lilly have requested emergency use authorizations for their products from the Food and Drug Administration.
These drug companies have the long experience and deep pockets needed to win the race for a powerful antibody treatment. But some scientists are betting on a dark horse: Prometheus, a ragtag group of scientists who are months behind in the competition — and yet may ultimately deliver the most powerful antibody.
Prometheus is a collaboration between academic labs, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and a New Hampshire-based antibody company called Adimab.
The group’s antibody is not expected to be in human trials until late December, but it may be worth the wait. Unlike the antibodies made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly, which fade in the body within weeks, Prometheus’s antibody aims to be effective for up to six months.
“A single dose goes a long way, meaning we can treat more people,” said Kartik Chandran, a virologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the group’s leader.
In mice and laboratory tests, Prometheus’s antibody protects against not just the coronavirus, but also the SARS virus and similar bat viruses — suggesting that the treatment may protect against any coronaviruses emerging in the future.
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