How vaccines, antivirals and antibodies could help fight the coronavirus

v rees coronavirus image scaled e

There has been a lot of confusion in regard to possible treatments for COVID-19 and the timeline for the development and deployment of those treatments. To clarify, we first need to define what we mean by “treatment,” because there are a wide variety, including vaccines, antivirals, and antibodies.


A vaccine won’t be available for at least a year or two. (Also, a vaccine may or may not work.) The reason is because vaccines must be tested scrupulously for safety. An article written by Derek Lowe in Chemistry World goes into more detail, but the gist is this: A vaccine is given to millions – perhaps billions – of healthy people, including children. We have to be darn sure that what we’re injecting into people is safe and actually works. There are horror stories of children dying from poorly designed vaccines. Even under the best of circumstances, vaccines can trigger mildly unpleasant side effects (e.g., sore arm) or even rare fatal autoimmune conditions. (No, they still don’t cause autism.)

screenshot what does it mean that the cdc is starting to test for coronavirus antibodies here s what you need to
Credit: Robin Utrecht/Associated Press


For that reason, most likely, an antiviral will be available before a vaccine. Because drug discovery is a long and arduous process, the best hope we have right now is to repurpose an existing drug. Essentially, we’re taking drugs off the shelf and seeing if they work to treat COVID-19. The drug that is currently generating the most excitement is called remdesivir. It was originally designed to treat Ebola. (It didn’t work.)

However, there are good reasons to believe it may at least help patients infected with coronavirus. Gilead, the drug’s maker, has already launched Phase III clinical trials. These trials should wrap up in April or May. If they end up being successful, a decent supply could be ready by the summer.


Other treatments that are in development include antibodies. These can do various things, depending on what they bind to. One strategy is to use antibodies that have an anti-inflammatory effect. These won’t “cure” the virus, but they can help tame an overreactive immune response, such as a cytokine storm, that could be playing a role in the critical cases of COVID-19. Genentech has launched a Phase III clinical trial of an antibody (originally developed to treat an autoimmune condition called rheumatoid arthritis) that may help.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Taking vitamin D is the 'least crackpot' of the coronavirus nutrition ideas

Another strategy is to develop neutralizing antibodies, such as those found in the blood plasma of people who successfully fought off an infection. These bind to the virus and prevent infection. Dr. Jacob Glanville claims that, if all goes according to plan, he could develop a supply of antibodies by September.

Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.

How Effective Will the Treatments Be?

We won’t have a good idea of that until we start seeing clinical trial data. “Success” can be measured in various ways (not just preventing death). Researchers also look for outcomes such as improvement of clinical symptoms or improvement of hospital discharge rates. Getting people home faster is obviously important when hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.

Will Treatment Eliminate the Disease?

Probably not. The virus will be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s not even clear if a vaccine will make the disease “go away” because there is evidence that humans do not develop long-lasting immunity to coronaviruses. That doesn’t mean a vaccine would be useless. It just means that, if a vaccine works, we may need to get frequent booster shots. Partial immune protection is still better than none.

Dr. Alex Berezow is a science writer, author, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science. Follow him on Twitter @AlexBerezow

This article originally appeared at the American Council on Science and Health and has been republished here with permission. Follow them on Twitter @ACSHorg

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend