This antibody may protect against COVID-19 and all its variants - study

The antibody in question was easily induced in rhesus macaque monkeys and provided broad protection against not just COVID-19 and variants but other SARS viruses.

 COVID-19 (illustrative) (photo credit: TORANGE)
COVID-19 (illustrative)
(photo credit: TORANGE)

How can we prevent future SARS virus outbreaks like with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19? The answer may be in inducing antibodies that are effective against multiple types of SARS viruses, according to a new study.

The findings of this study, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science Translational Medicine, shed light on these antibodies and can give scientists knowledge to make better and more efficient vaccines.

SARS-CoV-2, coronaviruses and COVID-19: The importance of antibodies

The start of 2020 coincided with the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. First noticed in Wuhan, China, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is believed to be a zoonotic virus that has since been transmitted all over the world, infecting hundreds of millions with COVID-19 and killing an ever-increasing number of people.

Now, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first SARS virus to have caused significant illness. Back in 2003, an outbreak of SARS-CoV-1 emerged in China, though this highly lethal disease was safely contained.

But SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 are on a completely different level, having continued to ravage the globe for over two years.

 SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

This is, in part, due to a very problematic aspect of the virus: its mutations and variants.

The coronavirus has had numerous mutations over the years, several of which, like Delta and Omicron, have thwarted efforts to stem the tide of the pandemic.

How is COVID-19 stopped?

The obvious answer to how we can stop this and future pandemics is through vaccines, which can offer the necessary immunity and antibodies needed to resist infection. However, while they have made an astronomical difference in the level of devastation COVID-19 has wrought upon the world, the number of mutations and variants continue to pose a challenge.

As such, the search for better vaccines and immunization methods remains both vital and relevant.

Now, that aside, the efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 has been nothing short of a scientific marvel, with multiple companies such as Pfizer and Moderna putting out successful and effective vaccines after a rapid development cycle.

This speed was, in part, due to how easy it is to induce the necessary protective neutralizing antibodies in humans via the spike protein.

The spike protein is what the virus uses to connect itself to the body’s cells. Not only that, but it is a relatively consistent part of SARS-CoV-2 regardless of the variant. As such, vaccines tend to target it.

But as effective this may be in humans, how is it in other animals? Specifically, how is it in non-human primates? That is what the study sought to answer.

Monkeys and spike proteins: Antibodies that will surprise you

The researchers behind the study, all from Scripps Research, worked to immunize rhesus macaques monkeys with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This was done with the same process used in prior research. Essentially, each monkey was administered with two shots to immunize them.

After this, they were examined for antibody development. What they found, though, was that these monkeys didn’t just develop standard antibodies; they managed to develop much broader neutralizing antibodies against the virus and its variants, including Omicron.

So, why did this happen?

This is something the researchers sought to answer, so they began investigating the structure of the antibodies themselves. While doing this, they discovered that the antibodies focused not just on the spike protein, but on an area near the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor binding site, which is where the spike protein binds.

This area is odd, because human antibodies almost never target it.

But could this place be an important area for targeting?

Is the angiotensin-converting enzyme important?

That’s what the researchers behind the study think, and they say that there could be methods that could help the human immune system target this area.

Of course, this isn’t perfect. While humans and rhesus macaque monkeys are both primates, they are still significantly different on a genetic level. As such, the human immune system as it is now may not be able to do what the rhesus macaque monkeys can do here.

But it can be made to with the help of more deliberately engineered vaccines or other methods. Especially now that we know where we need to target.

More research is needed to have the best tools, models and strategies for doing this, but either way, the research has brought us another step closer in our fight against viruses.