Lab-Created Antibodies May Protect Against COVID-19

antibodies responding to SARS-CoV-2



Key Takeaways

  • Monoclonal antibodies can mimic naturally produced antibodies in the body.
  • Newly-identified antibodies may attack the SARS-CoV-2 virus in different ways, widening the current approach to treatment.
  • Monoclonal antibodies may offer short-term protection against COVID-19 while we wait for a vaccine.

The scientists developing COVID-19 vaccines are working toward a common goal: to get your body to produce antibodies that will protect against the virus. But while we wait on the technology necessary to encourage natural antibody production, other researchers are exploring the use of manufactured antibodies to treat COVID-19.

Manufactured antibodies are laboratory-made versions of antibodies, also known as monoclonal antibodies. In theory, they can be injected into patients to speed COVID-19 recovery, or to prevent infection from taking hold. In a small new study published in the journal Nature, researchers found new types of monoclonal antibodies that are particularly potent against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They found that these monoclonal antibodies can attack the virus in new ways.

In a webinar last month, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said that monoclonal antibodies are “almost a sure bet” in fighting COVID-19.

Researchers Found Antibodies Can Treat COVID-19 In New Ways

For the study, researchers from Columbia University isolated 61 antibodies from five critically ill patients who were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Of those antibodies, 19 “potently neutralized” the virus in a lab. The researchers created monoclonal antibodies to mimic these natural antibodies and tested them in hamsters.

Sanjay Sethi, MD

Our bodies can’t tell the difference between monoclonal antibodies and ones our bodies naturally make.

— Sanjay Sethi, MD

The researchers found that monoclonal antibodies were split into two groups: those that target the area of the virus's crown-like spikes known to attach to human cells, and those that target a previously unexplored region of the spikes.

“These findings show which sites on the viral spike are most vulnerable,” David Ho, MD, professor of medicine at Columbia University and the study director, said in a statement. “Using a cocktail of different antibodies that are directed to different sites in spike will help prevent the virus becoming resistant to the treatment.”

This isn't the only study on monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19. On August 10, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced recruitment for two Phase 3 randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials to test whether experimental monoclonal antibodies can prevent COVID-19 infection.

What Are Antibodies?

To understand "manufactured" monoclonal antibodies, it’s first important to know what “regular” antibodies are. An antibody is a protein component of the immune system that circulates in the blood. Antibodies recognize foreign substances in the body like bacteria and viruses and work to neutralize them. After you’ve been exposed to a foreign substance, which is known as an antigen, antibodies continue to circulate in your blood, and help provide protection to you against future exposures to that antigen. You can create antibodies in response to actually contracting a virus, or in response to being vaccinated for that virus.

“These are not difficult to produce and our bodies can’t tell the difference between monoclonal antibodies and ones our bodies naturally make,” Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor and chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the University at Buffalo, tells Verywell. While Seth was not involved with the study, he has researched monoclonal antibodies. “If this works, it will be a great thing.”

How Monoclonal Antibodies Work

Just like natural antibodies, monoclonal antibodies bind directly to portions of viruses and keep them from infecting a person, Sethi says, adding they may "speed up recovery" in patients who are already sick.

Monoclonal antibodies may also provide short-term protection from SARS-CoV-2 and “could serve as important components of the COVID-19 pandemic response until vaccines become available,” the NIH says.

Monoclonal antibodies are typically given as an injection. It’s unclear at this point how often someone would need to be treated with monoclonal antibodies for them to work against COVID-19, because they wouldn't last as long as antibodies produced naturally by the body's immune system.

"These are trials—we just don’t know for sure yet,” Sethi says.

According to Rajeev S. Fernando, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital in New York, monoclonal antibodies could be more of a supplemental treatment.

"I'm not sure it's a game-changer itself in treatment for critically ill patients, but, in those patients, I would probably use it in conjunction with remdesivir and dexamethasone at this time, as much is unknown," he tells Verywell.

Monoclonal Antibodies Have Been Used Before

While developing antibodies for COVID-19 requires innovative research, monoclonal antibodies have long been used in medicine.

“We have been using manufactured antibodies for a while now for things like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease,” Jamie K. Alan, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Verywell. She cites the chemotherapy drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) and arthritis medication adalimumab (Humira) as popular monoclonal antibody treatments.

Monoclonal antibodies have also been used to treat Ebola. Research shows that ZMapp, a combination of three monoclonal antibodies, can prevent people from dying of the virus.

“Monoclonal antibodies are already changing how we think about Ebola,” Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Verywell. “It’s changed the virus to a treatable illness.”

Monoclonal Antibodies Have Some Drawbacks

It’s “impossible to predict” right now what, if any, side effects using manufactured antibodies to treat or prevent COVID-19 may cause, Alan says. But, in general with monoclonal antibody therapies, she says people may experience side effects like:

  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Swelling at the injection site

Cost is a potential hurdle with this form of treatment, according to Fernando.

"Monoclonal antibodies are super expensive, so I'm not sure how it will be provided to the general public if these trials are successful," he says.

What This Means For You

Manufactured antibodies could become a mainstay in COVID-19 treatment. However, clinical trials regarding their effectiveness at preventing infection are still ongoing, and it will take time to see if this treatment is effective for the general public.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Liu L, Wang P, Nair MS, et al. Potent neutralizing antibodies against multiple epitopes on SARS-CoV-2 spikeNature (2020). doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2571-7

  2. National Human Genome Research Institute. Antibody.

  3. National Institutes of Health. Ebola antibody treatment tested in people. February 5, 2019.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.