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An Antibody “Cocktail” for COVID-19: Bottoms Up!

By Shlomo Maital

             In medical research, sometimes old tried-and-true ideas become new.

             In HIV AIDS research, researchers tried to find an antibody that would defeat the virus, if injected or consumed by patients. It didn’t work. The virus always found a way. The solution? Cocktails – combinations of antibodies, which taken together the virus could not defeat. And to this day, those who are HIV positive do quite well, relatively, when they regularly take the new ‘cocktail’. One of those drugs is called “Retrovir”. David Ho is generally regarded as the HIV cocktail pioneer, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

           A similar approach proved effective with the Ebola virus. Late last year it was reported that: “ …a team of scientists demonstrated that a two-antibody cocktail called MBP134 could fully protect nonhuman primates and ferrets against lethal Ebola virus infections.”

           Now comes a biotech company called Regeneron, which has embraced the same principle. According to CNN and Peter Sullivan, writing for

   Regeneron is testing a cocktail of two antibodies to both treat and prevent the coronavirus, developed using people who have recovered from COVID-19 as well as genetically modified mice.   The company did not give a firm timeline for its work, but these antibody cocktails could be ready sooner than a vaccine.   A competitor company also working on the idea, Eli Lilly, said its antibody treatment could be as ready as early as September; it started trials earlier this month.  

“We have created a unique anti-viral antibody cocktail with the potential both to prevent and treat infection,” Dr. George Yancopoulos, chief scientific officer of Regeneron, said in a statement.   The antibody cocktail “could have a major impact on public health by slowing spread of the virus and providing a needed treatment for those already sick — and could be available much sooner than a vaccine.”

    We learned from treating HIV AIDS that a two-pronged approach is needed: Develop anti-viral drugs, while you develop anti-viral vaccines.  To this day no vaccine for HIV has been found.

      This is happening with COVID-19 as well. Drugs and vaccines.  Meanwhile, a vast army of hard-working scientists all over the world are collaborating, sharing results, and working day and night, to defeat this wily virus.

    They give us reason for much hope.

Winter the Llama – Can She Save Humanity?

By Shlomo Maital

Winter the Llama

 OK, so I can see how an MIT scientist can save the world.

   But a llama? Winter the llama?

   So here’s the story, by Jillian Kramer, writing in the New York Times today:

   “Winter is a 4-year-old chocolate-colored llama with spindly legs, ever-so-slightly askew ears and envy-inducing eyelashes. Some scientists hope she might be an important figure in the fight against the novel coronavirus.   She is not a superpowered camelid. Winter was simply the lucky llama chosen by researchers in Belgium, where she lives, to participate in a series of virus studies involving both SARS and MERS. Finding that her antibodies staved off those infections, the scientists posited that those same antibodies could also neutralize the new virus that causes Covid-19. They were right, and published their results Tuesday in the journal Cell.

       “Scientists have long turned to llamas for antibody research. In the last decade, for example, scientists have used llamas’ antibodies in H.I.V. and influenza research, finding promising therapies for both viruses.   Humans produce only one kind of antibody, made of two types of protein chains — heavy and light — that together form a Y shape. Heavy-chain proteins span the entire Y, while light-chain proteins touch only the Y’s arms. Llamas, on the other hand, produce two types of antibodies. One of those antibodies is similar in size and constitution to human antibodies. But the other is much smaller; it’s only about 25 percent the size of human antibodies. The llama’s antibody still forms a Y, but its arms are much shorter because it doesn’t have any light-chain proteins.”

“This more diminutive antibody can access tinier pockets and crevices on spike proteins — the proteins that allow viruses like the novel coronavirus to break into host cells and infect us — that human antibodies cannot. That can make it more effective in neutralizing viruses.”

Best-Practice Virus Management: Look to Germany

By Shlomo Maital

Angela Merkel

   Sometimes, something happens and – we know exactly why we were put on this earth. Take Angela Merkel. Americans would call her a ‘lame duck’ chancellor, as she has indicated she will not run for re-election as head of her party, and a successor was already chosen (and then, resigned, and a new successor emerged). But meanwhile, she is still Chancellor, leading Germany at a critical time – and guess what – she gets it. [She obtained a doctorate in quantum chemistry in 1986 and worked as a research scientist until 1989].   Listening to an ignorant, spiteful, uneducated draft-dodging American President who does NOT get, focused solely on his rapidly-decreasing chances for re-election, it is very painful, after hearing Merkel.

     In part because of Merkel’s leadership, and in part because Germany is a very well-run organized country strong in science and technology, Germany today is best-practice in emerging from the coronavirus lockdown. New York Times’ Berlin bureau chief Katrin Bennhold explains why:

   “….3,000 households [were] chosen at random in Munich for an ambitious study whose central aim is to understand how many people — even those with no symptoms — have already had the virus, a key variable to make decisions about public life in a pandemic. The study is part of an aggressive approach to combat the virus in a comprehensive way that has made Germany a leader among Western nations figuring out how to control the contagion while returning to something resembling normal life.”

     Bennhold continues: “Other nations, including the United States, are still struggling to test for infections. But Germany is doing that and more. It is aiming to sample the entire population for antibodies in coming months, hoping to gain valuable insight into how deeply the virus has penetrated the society at large, how deadly it really is, and whether immunity might be developing   The government hopes to use the findings to unravel a riddle that will allow Germany to move securely into the next phase of the pandemic: Which of the far-reaching social and economic restrictions that have slowed the virus are most effective and which can be safely. The same questions are being asked around the world. Other countries like Iceland and South Korea have tested broadly for infections, or combined testing with digital tracking to undercut the spread of the virus.

   “Germany, which produces most of its own high-quality test kits, is already testing on a greater scale than most — 120,000 a day and growing in a nation of 83 million. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained scientist, said this week that the aim was nothing less than tracing “every infection chain.”   That high level of testing has helped her country slow the spread of the virus and keep the number of deaths relatively low. More people in Germany now recover from the virus every day than are infected by it. Every 10 people infected with the virus now pass it to seven others — a sharp decline in the infection rate for a virus that has spread exponentially.”

   “Nationally, the Robert Koch Institute, the government’s central scientific institution in the field of biomedicine, is testing 5,000 samples from blood banks across the country every two weeks and 2,000 people in four hot spots who are farther along in the cycle of the disease.   Its most ambitious project, aiming to test a nationwide random sample of 15,000 people across the country, is scheduled to begin next month.”

   “In the free world, Germany is the first country looking into the future,” said Prof. Michael Hoelscher, who heads up the Munich study, noting that a number of countries had already asked him for the protocol to be able to replicate it. “We are leading the thinking of what to do next.”   Mr. Hoelscher was co-author of what has become a widely influential research paper about how the virus can be transmitted before someone develops symptoms.   “There’s no doubt after reading this paper that asymptomatic transmission is occurring,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, told CNN on Feb. 1, three days after the paper was published. “This study lays the question to rest. Asymptomatic transmission is what has made containment so difficult because a large number of infections are not detected.”


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital