The Race for a Super-Antibody Against the Coronavirus
“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.
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.
A study published last year recorded about 400 strains of bat-origin coronaviruses in China, some of which had already spilled over into people.
Monoclonal antibodies are artificially synthesized copies of the most effective antibodies produced naturally by patients. In late February, AbCellera fished out an apparent winner from among 550 antibodies drawn from the blood of an infected patient. Barely three months later, partner Eli Lilly began the first trial of a synthesized version in patients.
Regeneron, which has a $450 million contract from the federal government to develop its treatment, was not far behind. Its drug is a cocktail of two antibodies. One was discovered in a patient in Singapore, while the other was made using a synthetic viral snippet in mice.
On Sept. 29, days before Mr. Trump received his infusion, Regeneron announced that this cocktail seemed particularly helpful for people who did not produce enough antibodies of their own against the coronavirus.”