In test tubes, the antibodies prevented the binding of the novel coronavirus to its receptor, according to the researchers. Antibodies that block that step – which is critical for infection – could one day be a promising treatment for the virus.
But it’s not clear whether blocking the binding of the virus in a lab means the antibodies could prevent infection in real humans.
The researchers published their findings Monday in the medical journal Cellular and Molecular Immunology. They cloned two different antibodies – called 311mab-31B5 and 311mab-32D4 – and said the antibodies “neutralized” the entry of a fake coronavirus into cells.
The antibodies could one day be used as “prophylactic and therapeutic agents,” the researchers said, suggesting they could one day be used to both prevent and treat Covid-19.
Using cloned antibodies to treat diseases is not a new concept. The approach has been used to develop experimental treatments for Ebola, using antibodies from animals or people exposed to the virus.
The underlying idea – that antibodies can be used as a treatment – is also being tested in trials of so-called convalescent plasma. That treatment is somewhat different, though, with people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus giving their antibody-filled blood plasma to those who are sick.
It remains unclear whether cloned antibodies – such as those developed by the Chinese researchers – could be a successful treatment for the novel coronavirus, and this new research is in its earliest stages.
The approach may hold promise, though. In 2018, the top US infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that “effective antibodies have become easier to identify, select, optimize, and manufacture.”
Writing alongside other experts, Fauci said the treatments, technically called monoclonal antibodies, “are positioned to play a larger role in future public health responses involving the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of [emerging infectious diseases].”
But the antibodies come with a downside: they’re incredibly expensive. As Fauci wrote, “pragmatic concerns must be addressed – notably cost.”