Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

A Game-Changing Coronavirus Treatment That No One’s Talking About

Clinical trials for monoclonal antibodies are already underway, and the timelines are shorter than those for vaccines

Elemental
Published in
5 min readJul 23, 2020

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For months, the world has watched and waited as the medical-science community labors to identify a remedy that will end the pandemic. In the United States, most of the public’s interest has been focused on the progress of the various vaccine candidates, which could provide the ultimate form of protection against the novel coronavirus.

Much less attention has been paid to monoclonal antibodies, which are drugs that contain specialized proteins that are intended to stop SARS-CoV-2 from infecting healthy cells. In many ways, these drugs do the work of a vaccine, only they do it more quickly and efficiently — if also less durably.

“Antibody-based therapies may offer one of the best near-term options for developing safe, effective treatments for Covid-19,” said Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institute of Health, in a blog post published in May. Since then, research teams have isolated monoclonal antibodies that — in test tubes and in monkeys — have blocked SARS-CoV-2 from spreading.

In a best-case scenario, experts say that monoclonal antibodies could act as a “bridge” drug that carries us safely forward until that time when a vaccine is available for wide dissemination. And they say that best-case scenario is not far-fetched.

The difference between vaccines and monoclonal antibodies

Human blood contains hundreds of thousands of different antibodies. Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system that can attack or repel viruses and other pathogens.

In oversimplified terms, vaccines work in part by encouraging the immune system to make new antibodies — ones that are able to defeat a particular pathogen. Once the immune system starts to make these antibodies, it doesn’t stop. And so unless a virus mutates in a way that renders those antibody proteins ineffective, anyone who possesses them is protected from that virus.

“Conceptually, monoclonal…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.