Sickest coronavirus patients could be injected with lab-made antibodies to help fight off infection

Edward Malnick
,COVID-19 - AFP
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Some of the sickest coronavirus patients could be injected with lab-made antibodies when they arrive in hospital to help them fight off the disease, according to a government advisor.

Prof Peter Openshaw, who sits on Sage's nine-strong clinical information group, described biotech therapies currently being trialled as potentially "very exciting" treatments for Covid-19 patients.

The drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies, are based on antibodies produced by patients who have recovered from coronavirus, and are the first potential new medicines specifically designed to attack the virus.

Prof Openshaw said such treatments would result in antibodies circulating in a patient's bloodstream "within half an hour", unlike vaccines, which could take "weeks" to stimulate the body into producing a similar response.

"One particular benefit might be that it could prevent progression to the severe disease that is sometimes seen in people who present with initial respiratory symptoms," he said.

"Boosting their antibody levels as soon as they arrive in hospital could mean that they don't go on to develop all the severe complications that do happen in a minority of patients."

Prof Openshaw, who is a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said British scientists were now awaiting the results of human trials that showed the effect of injecting monoclonal antibodies into Covid-19 patients in hospitals.

Unlike drugs such as dexamethasone, the steroid, monoclonal antibodies have been specifically designed to attack the virus and can be given to patients much earlier in the course of the disease.

Two US pharma firms, Eli Lilly and Regeneron, launched the first safety studies of monoclonal antibodies therapies in humans last month.

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Prof Openshaw said: "I think it's potentially a very exciting form of therapy and the field has advanced quite remarkably over recent years in terms of the ability to produce antibodies in factories or in labs in bulk, that would be necessary for such a treatment to work." But he added: "We do have to wait for some really good studies to demonstrate this."

Last month, Dr Nick Cammack, who is leading the global search for coronavirus therapeutics at the UK biomedical research charity Wellcome, told The Telegraph that monoclonal antibodies would “fast forward” a patient's immune response to the disease and prevent the body from going into the immune system overdrive that can kill.

Antibodies only have to be harvested from a recovered patient once as the cells can be grown an infinite number of times, in a process Dr Cammack compared to a sourdough bread starter.

The treatment is administered as an injection under the skin and may be used as both a prophylactic and a therapy, Dr Cammack said.  

Dr Cammack suggested that such a treatment could be injected into residents in areas struck by Covid-19 outbreaks, as a preventative measure in the absence of a vaccine.

Prof Openshaw agreed that a monoclonal antibody treatment could potentially be used "prophylactically", but added: "The much better way to induce an immune response that would be protective would be a vaccine ... inducing the immune system to make its own antibody seems the best way forward in terms of actually trying to protect people rather than giving them passive immunity by injecting them with antibody which will over time disappear.

"The antibody won't be long lasting and you'll be back to square one in terms of vulnerability. Whereas if you can use a vaccine to induce a volunteer to develop their own antibody that's going to give, we hope and expect, more durable immunity."

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