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Behind The Race To Develop Antibody-Based Treatments For COVID-19


When a body is invaded by a virus, the immune system makes something called antibodies, which help fight off infection. Several teams are trying to make drugs that are synthetic versions of those antibodies to treat people exposed to the coronavirus. NPR's Joe Palca reports on how those efforts are progressing.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: One of the efforts is being led by the Defense Department. It's called the Pandemic Prevention Platform. The idea is to shorten the time it takes to develop effective countermeasures to a biological threat, like the coronavirus, to just 90 days.

AMY JENKINS: I am happy to say that the clock has started. The clock started the first week of March.

PALCA: That's Amy Jenkins, who leads the project.

JENKINS: We have been able to identify antibodies that bind to this novel coronavirus.

PALCA: That's the first step in the process, so they know they have something that recognizes the virus. The next step is to see if those antibodies can block the virus from infecting cells in the lab. Jenkins says that step should be completed anytime now. If the antibodies work to protect cells, the next step will be to test them in animals.

JENKINS: There it's going to be a bit of a bottleneck, I would anticipate, in being able to do these animal studies.

PALCA: That's because researchers need special genetically modified mice to test coronavirus therapies since normal lab mice aren't easily infected with the virus. Those mice are in short supply, so Jenkins says they're trying to find other animals they can use for testing.

JENKINS: So if the testing goes well and it shows efficacy in those animal models, our next step will be to start manufacturing.

PALCA: Best case, Jenkins says, they might have a drug they can give to humans by June. Now there's one big question mark hanging over the project at this point. Jenkins says researchers get the antibodies they need from patients who have gotten sick with the coronavirus and recovered. The idea is if a patient gets better, that person's immune system made antibodies that were effective in fighting the virus. But Jenkins says the antibodies they're using all came from one patient.

JENKINS: And so doing this with just one patient is very, very risky.

PALCA: Just by chance, that patient's antibodies might not be very potent. Phil Pang is chief medical officer at Vir Biotechnology. He says they're casting a much wider net.

PHIL PANG: We are hoping to get up to 100 blood donors.

PALCA: Pang says they already have some promising candidates.

PANG: We believe that we are weeks - hopefully weeks and certainly no more than months away from identifying a highly potent monoclonal antibody.

PALCA: A monoclonal antibody is the technical term for the antibody therapy. Once they have that monoclonal antibody, they'll still want to show it won't cause serious side effects. Pang is reasonably sure that won't be a problem.

PANG: A monoclonal antibody that is targeted against a virus tends to be very safe.

PALCA: A company called Regeneron has a way of developing antibodies that doesn't rely on humans at all. The company uses special mice that essentially have a human immune system. George Yancopoulos is Regeneron's chief scientific officer. He says they already have hundreds of antibody candidates.

GEORGE YANCOPOULOS: And then ultimately, we'll choose the top two. And we're hoping that by June we will have what they call clinical-grade material to start testing in human beings.

PALCA: That's remarkably fast by the normal standards of drug development but still farther off than anyone would like.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENE AUBRY'S "SALENTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.