Despite a coronavirus vaccine still months off, researchers are racing to study what might be the next best thing: medicines that have antibodies to combat the virus immediately, without having to train the immune system to produce them. Antibodies are proteins that the body makes when an infection occurs; they attach themselves to a virus and help eliminate it. Vaccines work by tricking the body into believing that an infection is present because it produces antibodies and knows how to do that when the actual bug appears.
But it can take a month or two for the most powerful antibodies to develop after vaccination or infection. The experimental drugs shortcut the method by offering condensed versions of similar ones the performed best in lab and animal tests against the coronavirus. “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. “If we can generate them in large concentrations, in big vats in an antibody factory … we can kind of bypass the immune system.”
These drugs are believed to last for a month or more and could give quick, temporary immunity to people at high risk of infection, such as health workers and housemates of someone with Covid-19. If they proved effective and if a vaccine doesn’t materialize or protect as hoped, the drugs might eventually be considered for wider use, perhaps for teachers or other groups.