Several months ago, the whole world heard that US president Donald Trump received ‘treatment’ for Covid-19 with something called ‘monoclonal antibodies’. But what is the treatment actually? While not a cure, monoclonal antibodies are an effective bridge to vaccines and can complement them in providing efficient treatment.
Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to the presence of foreign agents, also named antigens. Antibodies are the body’s natural defence mechanism against disease. They recognise antigens when they enter the body and work to destroy them. Monoclonal antibodies, however, are synthetic antibodies, which are created by cloning a natural antibody. Each antibody is specific to a certain antigen and therefore targets a specific disease. This is an example of immunotherapy and is often used to complement vaccine treatments.
Recently, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) announced the authorisation of monoclonal antibodies as a treatment for the Covid-19 virus. The treatment is a lab-synthesised antibody known as bamlanivimab,which mimics the body’s natural immune response to Covid-19 and blocks the attachment and entry of the virus into human cells. Created by Eli Lilly & Co., this particular antibody was identified and taken from one of the first US citizens to recover from the virus. The company will be able to mass-produce it but unfortunately, there will still be a shortage as their creation is expensive and complicated, especially in the first stages of approval. This treatment poses a promising outlook on the future of this pandemic; however it is not a replacement for a vaccine.
Several pharmaceutical companies, namely Moderna and Pfizer, are developing ways of mass-producing vaccines with groundbreaking success rates. These vaccines are complemented by monoclonal immunotherapy to provide a multifaceted solution to the ongoing pandemic. We need monoclonal therapy as it provides a rapid and instant protection for people in high-risk groups and it also provides a “boost” for people already infected with the disease but are not capable of relying on their immune system solely to eliminate it. Vaccines on the other hand work on longer term immunity, as they encourage the body to create the antibodies by containing small fractions of the virus, these antibodies are eventually stored for a long period of time, and are prepared if the virus enters the body again. This is why vaccines will take a longer time to exhibit results and to have a prominent, population-wide effect. Vaccines may need longer to become widely available, particularly through the final stages of trials and so a more immediate solution is also needed.
Monoclonal antibodies provide an effective solution for higher risk groups, frontline workers and people with compromised immunity that cannot receive vaccines. Restrictions have certainly been difficult in these unprecedented times and cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments are an optimistic step in the direction of normality.
By Lujain Alhassan
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