Solving COVID: May 13, 2020

The Week Staff
A llama.
Illustrated | iStock
Our 'Solving COVID' newsletter is a weekly roundup of the latest scientific advancements being made against the coronavirus pandemic. It tracks developments in testing, treating, and vaccinating. To receive the newsletter every week, please enter your email below:


Llama antibodies appear to neutralize COVID-19 virus

Llamas carry antibodies that could be the key to treating COVID-19, scientists suggested in a study published in the journal Cell. While humans produce just one set of antibodies when they get sick, llamas make two: one that's around the size of human antibodies, and one that's much smaller. Those smaller antibodies are usually better at accessing the tiny holes in viruses' spike proteins and eradicating them, The New York Times describes. So scientists turned to a llama named Winter, who was used to develop treatments for the SARS and MERS viruses. Six weeks after Winter was injected with spike proteins from the new coronavirus, scientists found that her antibodies appeared to neutralize COVID-19 — a first for any living creature. Scientists suggest linking two tiny llama antibodies together and safely distributing them to humans could be an effective way of treating coronavirus. [Cell, The New York Times]


FDA authorizes quicker antigen test for emergency use

The Food and Drug Administration has issued the first emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 antigen test. The test, produced by San Diego-based manufacturer Quidel, can diagnose COVID-19 by detecting fragments of protein found on or within the virus present in samples collected from the nose using swabs. The test produces results within minutes — much more quickly than many other tests on the market, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are more complex to conduct and analyze. But antigen tests are also more liable to result in false negatives, so additional PCR tests may be necessary to confirm results. According to CNBC, however, "positive results from antigen tests are highly accurate." Douglas Bryant, Quidel's chief executive, told The Wall Street Journal the company hopes to soon be producing more than one million tests per week. [CNBC, The Wall Street Journal]


U.K. studying DNA of COVID-19 patients to learn why some get sicker than others

Researchers at Scotland's University of Edinburgh and colleagues around the United Kingdom have launched a project to learn crucial information about the new coronavirus by sequencing the genomes of 20,000 severely ill COVID-19 patients and 15,000 Britons with milder symptoms. The project, a collaboration with the National Health Service and Genomics England, seeks to understand why some patients get hit harder with the disease and use that knowledge to help find or develop treatments. More than 2,000 patients have already donated DNA to the project. "Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like COVID-19," Dr. Kenneth Baillie, the University of Edinburgh critical care physician leading the investigation, told BBC News. "Understanding these genes will help us to choose treatments for clinical trials." Among the questions the researchers hope to answer is why men get sick and die from COVID-19 at much higher rates, and why some children develop sometimes-fatal toxic shock symptoms. [BBC, The Guardian]


WHO sees hope for speedier vaccine in 'challenge studies'

A report from the World Health Organization says intentionally infecting healthy volunteers with the coronavirus may "not only accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, but also make it more likely that the vaccines ultimately deployed are more effective." So-called "challenge studies" like these pose tough ethical questions, and must be "carefully designed and conducted in order to minimize harm to volunteers," the WHO report says, adding that initial studies should be limited to volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30. Vaccine specialist Peter G. Smith suggests such studies would be at least four months faster than standard vaccine trials, QZ reports, though he notes that "even if a vaccine worked in young people, there would be no guarantee it would work in the same way for elderly people." The chief medical officer at Moderna, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine, recently cast doubt on whether challenge studies would speed up the process, saying, "As is often the case, the devil is in the details." [World Health Organization, QZ]


Moderna coronavirus vaccine candidate being fast-tracked

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given a "fast track" designation to a COVID-19 vaccine candidate from Moderna Therapeutics. The fast track designation helps "expedite the review" of the vaccine's development process, with "early and frequent communication between the FDA" and the company. Health experts believe we will need more than one vaccine to effectively fight COVID-19 and meet demand, so cutting through some of the red tape is a good thing, and will help the vaccine trials accelerate alongside other candidates. Last week, Moderna announced it received clearance from the FDA to proceed with phase two testing of this mRNA vaccine candidate, planning for a phase three study in early summer. Modern Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel described the "imminent" start of phase two as a "crucial step forward," and Moderna says its phase two study with 600 participants is "expected to begin shortly." According to CNBC, "if all goes well, its vaccine could be in production as early as July." [Time, CNBC]