Recent good news regarding COVID-19 vaccines comes with a catch. In late June, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reminded the world that no vaccine is perfect and he would "settle" for a COVID-19 vaccine that is 70% to 75% effective. Furthermore, he cautioned that this incomplete protection, when coupled with the looming possibility that half of the public may choose not to receive this vaccine, would make it "unlikely" that the United States achieves sufficient levels of herd immunity to quell the pandemic.
Dr. Fauci’s commentary reflects an increasingly acknowledged point about efforts to combat COVID-19: Although developing vaccines is crucial, vaccines alone may never end the pandemic. Given this risk, it behooves the U.S. (and other nations) to invest immediately in additional complementary therapeutic strategies to end the medical crisis and stabilize the global economy.
Most people infected with the novel coronavirus don’t actually get that sick. About 80% of the infected present with relatively mild symptoms, with almost half not even realizing they have been infected. While it is the mild cases that make the pandemic so difficult to contain, it is the 20% minority of very serious cases that makes COVID-19 a crisis. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients are in real peril: Many die, and those who survive suffer extended hospital stays and slow recoveries. Focusing on a treatment for the minority of serious cases, rather than a preventive measure for everyone, would be a faster and complementary solution to end the medical crisis.
To fight this crisis, biotechnology companies worldwide have turned to antibodies, the same type of molecules created by your immune system after vaccination. Antibodies can be discovered quickly, manufactured in dozens of sites internationally, and have a powerful track record of being potent antivirals against challenging viruses such as Ebola and rabies. In fact, nearly 90% of Ebola patients and almost 100% of rabies patients survive if they receive their respective antibody therapies in time.Against COVID-19, antibody candidate therapeutics have already been proven to protect and treat hamsters successfully, and some have entered early phase human clinical trials.
While we praise the U.S. government’s investments in vaccine development as well as in Regeneron’s antibody cocktail approach, more must be done now to accelerate the therapies to fight the pandemic. More than 150 therapy companies have been deep in negotiations with the government, including with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, but not a single award has been granted outside of Regeneron’s $750 million, as Science magazine recently noted.This underinvestment in therapies must change. We urge Secretary Alex Azar and Health and Human Services to repurpose budgets and to move some of the $3 billion in recently canceled contracts back into antibody therapy investments.
It is vital for the world to have access to approved antibody therapies no later than the spring of 2021. Then when a patient is diagnosed with COVID-19, without waiting for symptoms to worsen, a nurse will be able to administer an infusion of the therapy. The antibodies will immediately flood into the patient’s veins and lungs and neutralize the virus: like a vaccine, but without the wait. An antibody therapy largely bypasses the immune system, meaning that it works immediately and has the same effect whether you are elderly, immunocompromised, or healthy. The patient can recover quickly and go home.
With an affordable antibody therapy and widespread rapid coronavirus testing, among other potential treatments, many may choose to receive an outpatient procedure antibody injection as precautionary measure. Healthcare workers and high risk groups for whom vaccines have not been effective could receive an antibody injection every four to eight weeks as a prophylactic to protect them.
This would be the new normal: COVID-19 would no longer be a medical crisis. Instead, it will have joined the ranks of influenza, staph, and HIV as yet another widespread but manageable infectious disease. Remove the risk to human life and the pressure upon hospital systems. Schools, colleges, and businesses could fully reopen. Work, travel, and international tourism could resume. We could get our world back.This version of our near future is within our grasp, but it requires immediate action from the U.S. government to become a reality.
Dr. Jacob Glanville is an immunologist, immunoengineer, and founding partner, CEO, and president of biotech companies Centivax and Distributed Bio. His work on creating anti-pandemic medicine is featured in Netflix's Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak.
This article was originally published in the Washington Examiner. Click here for the link.