Companies test antibody drugs to treat, prevent COVID-19

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With a coronavirus vaccine still months off, companies are rushing to test what may be the next best thing: drugs that deliver antibodies to fight the virus right away, without having to train the immune system to make them.

“A vaccine takes time to work, to force the development of antibodies. But when you give an antibody, you get immediate protection,” said University of North Carolina virologist Dr Myron Cohen. “The hope there is to target people who are in the first week of their illness and that we can treat them with the antibody and prevent them from getting sick,” said Dr. Marshall Lyon, an infectious disease specialist helping to test one such drug at Emory University in Atlanta.

The antibody drugs are “very promising” and, in contrast, could be available “fairly soon,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, a US Food and Drug Administration official who is leading government efforts to speed COVID-19 therapies. Key studies are underway and some answers should come by early fall.

Company Eli Lilly has already started manufacturing its antibody drug, betting that studies now underway will give positive results.

“Our goal is to get something out as soon as possible” and to have hundreds of thousands of doses ready by fall, said Lilly’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Daniel Skovronsky. Another company that developed an antibody drug cocktail against Ebola — Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. — now is testing one for coronavirus.

Others working on antibody drugs include Amgen and Adaptive Biotechnologies. The Singapore biotech company Tychan Pte Ltd. Also is testing an antibody drug and has similar products in development for Zika virus and yellow fever. A San Francisco company, Vir Biotechnology Inc., says it has engineered antibodies to last longer than they usually do to avoid this problem. GlaxoSmithKline has invested $250 million in Vir to test them.