To date, the COVID-19 virus has infected nearly four million people worldwide and has resulted in more than 270 thousand deaths . Since the pandemic began, scientists around the world have been working tirelessly to find an effective treatment or vaccine for the virus, but so far have produced very few tangible results.
Teams of researchers in Israel and the Netherlands, however, have recently made a very promising breakthrough. Studies from both countries are claiming that they have created antibodies that can block the coronavirus infection .
What is an Antibody?
Any foreign invader, such as a virus, bacteria, or a toxin, will contain what are called antigens . These antigens are typically proteins, but they could also be carbohydrates, small molecules, or nucleotides (the basic structural unit of DNA) .
When antigens enter your body, they stimulate an immune response. This means that your body’s immune system recognizes that you are being attacked by a foreign invader, and launches a counter-attack. You can think of your immune system as your body’s army.
In order to fight back, your immune system produces proteins called antibodies. You can think of these like the soldiers in your body’s army. Antibodies contain antigen-binding sites (called paratopes), that are specific to the antigen that is currently attacking your body. The antibody’s paratope attaches to the antigen’s epitope in a lock-and-key formation, thereby neutralizing the invader [4,5].
The specificity of antibodies is important because it ensures that the antibodies will only attack the invader, and not other, unrelated proteins .
Scientists agree that the only way to stop the COVID-19 virus from continuing to spread is to develop a vaccine. There are many stages to developing a vaccine, however, and it can take many months before one becomes available to the public.
A team in the Netherlands claims to have developed an antibody that succeeded at halting a coronavirus infection in a lab setting. A research center in Israel has simultaneously announced that they, too, have managed to develop a successful antibody.
Both of these advancements are in the early stages, but show great promise in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Such a neutralising antibody has potential to alter the course of infection in the infected host, support virus clearance or protect an uninfected individual that is exposed to the virus,” said Berend-Jan Bosch from Utrecht University in the Netherlands .
The researchers were studying the antibodies that were developed to combat the SARS outbreak in 2002 to 2004, another coronavirus. They managed to identify one antibody that also appears to be effective against the current coronavirus.
The scientists at Utrecht University, Erasmus Medical Center, are working with the global biopharmaceutical company, Harbour Biomed (HBM) to conduct their research. The antibody they have pinpointed is known as 47D11, and it targets the coronavirus’s spike protein, which allows it to enter human cells.
The scientists created what are called monoclonal antibodies in the lab using genetically modified mice, which resemble antibodies that are naturally produced in the body. Once the 47D11 antibody demonstrated neutralizing capabilities, the researchers reformatted it to create a human version.
“Monoclonal antibodies targeting vulnerable sites on viral surface proteins are increasingly recognized as a promising class of drugs against infectious diseases and have shown therapeutic efficacy for a number of viruses,” they wrote .
The Early Stages of Development
Jingsong Wang, the CEO of HBM described the research as “groundbreaking”, but knows that this is only the beginning of a long process.
“Much more work is needed to assess whether this antibody can protect or reduce the severity of disease in humans,” he said .
Many other experts are also optimistic but are cautioning that it is still too early to be declaring victory.
“Simply because we have found an antibody which neutralises a virus in a group of cells in a lab Petri dish doesn’t mean that we can expect the same response in patients, nor expect to see a positive change in a patient’s clinical condition,” said James Gill, honorary clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School. “But this is certainly a very promising discovery, coming from a robust scientific approach, and should be viewed as a reason for optimism.” 
The Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) is also optimistic about their work, and have already begun moving toward patenting the antibodies and mass-producing it.
The defense minister, Naftali Bennet, said in a statement that the scientists at the IIBR believe that the normal process for tests and regulatory approvals could be shortened, and be completed in several months .
With roughly one hundred other groups around the world working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, we can only hope that someday soon we will be able to provide immunity to the majority of the world’s population.
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