VIB achieves important milestone in the development of a COVID-19 drug

16 March 2020
Earlier this year, the lab of Xavier Saelens (VIB-UGent) announced the discovery of a unique antibody that is capable of binding the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). The antibody was developed in collaboration with two research groups in the US. The team has now established that the antibody can neutralize a lab variant of the virus, an important step forward in the development of a potential antiviral drug against the new coronavirus. This progress was made possible thanks to the intensive efforts of various teams in the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology.

An antibody against COVID-19
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the team of professor Xavier Saelens has been working relentlessly on a potential treatment for the viral infection. Earlier work of the scientists identified an antibody that binds an important part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Today, the lab announces new findings, in cooperation with the labs of Jason McLellan (University of Texas at Austin, US) and Markus Hoffmann and Stefan Pöhlmann (German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, Göttingen, Germany). These findings show that the antibody can neutralize the virus. This is an important step forward in the pursuit of an antiviral drug against the new coronavirus.

En route to protection
The new results provide the first evidence that the antibody could prevent the new coronavirus from infecting human cells. Importantly, the antibody can also be produced at large-scale using production processes that are common in the biopharmaceutical industry.

Prof. Saelens emphasizes: “This important step forward in the fight against COVID-19 is the result of great teamwork by members of my lab and professor Nico Callewaert’s research group (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology).”

Dr. Bert Schepens, staff scientist in the team of Prof. Saelens: “Good teamwork is crucial. We can count on the expertise in the research center, colleagues from VIB Discovery Sciences and the VIB Innovation & Business team. We will continue these collaborations, also with academic experts outside VIB. The moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments really felt like a collective victory.”

In contrast to vaccines, an antibody offers immediate protection – though of shorter duration. The advantage of this approach over vaccines is that patients don’t need to produce their own antibodies. The most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, often mount a modest response to vaccines, which means that their protection may be incomplete. Healthcare workers or people at increased risk of exposure to the virus can also benefit from an immediate protection. This type of medicine can therefore be an important tool in fighting the current pandemic.

The next steps
It remains important to note that confirmation of these results using the pathogenic coronavirus strain is needed – experiments which are currently ongoing. The VIB researchers are also preparing the preclinical test phase for a coronavirus treatment. Although these first results are highly promising, further research is necessary to confirm the full potential of this antibody-based drug directed against COVID-19. 

©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter