[Ip-health] FT: US defence department in race to identify coronavirus treatment

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Wed Mar 4 21:38:23 PST 2020


US defence department in race to identify coronavirus treatment
Darpa scientists look to use antibodies to protect healthcare workers and

Katrina Manson in Washington

Scientists funded by the US defence department are racing to extract
coronavirus antibodies from the blood of a recovered patient, in an attempt
to develop short-term treatments to protect frontline healthcare workers
and military personnel.

The breakthrough science would rely on injecting the genetic instructions
to make antibodies directly into a human to fight the virus, giving
immediate but short-term protection. Administering a vaccine has a
long-lasting effect but generally takes more than a fortnight to prime the
immune system.

Amy Jenkins, an infectious diseases expert who is leading the pandemic
prevention programme at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(Darpa), told the Financial Times she had funded four groups to try to
identify antibodies in blood from a single US patient who has already fully
recovered from coronavirus.

“It will take at least three weeks to find the antibodies — everybody is
really relying on one person’s immune response,” said Dr Jenkins. She said
the endeavour was high-risk because it remained unclear whether recovery
relied on production of large numbers of antibodies or other parts of a
body’s immune system response.

“They’ve been successful at this technique in the past but they were not
under as much pressure as they are right now,” she added, referring to an
effort last year to isolate the antibody from chikungunya virus, a disease
spread by infected mosquitoes for which there is no vaccine or treatment.

Dr Jenkins hopes that this would allow for the genetic material that codes
for antibodies to be injected directly into a human body in the form of
DNA, which carries genetic information, or RNA, a nucleic acid that
transmits messages from DNA in order to make proteins, rather than
manufacturing and injecting the antibodies themselves.

If Darpa’s effort works, the longer-term aim would be to turn antibodies
isolated from patients who recover from any disease into treatments for a
range of illnesses within 60 days. But Dr Jenkins said the earliest a
treatment for coronavirus could emerge would be six months from now.

“If we find a very good antibody, if they can make it very quickly in six
to eight months, we could have an impact on this current outbreak,” she

No vaccine is expected to complete clinical trials and be ready to fight a
coronavirus pandemic in less than a year.

The treatment would work in the same way that the body counters illness,
with circulating antibodies that last only three to six months but work
immediately. That could provide vital cover for healthcare workers sent to
the front lines of a disease outbreak or for military personnel deployed
overseas in contained spaces, such as an aircraft carrier, base or even to
cruise ship passengers, said Dr Jenkins.

More than 1,700 medical workers worldwide have contracted the illness. A US
military serviceman also contracted coronavirus at a base in South Korea.

Darpa, which leads scientific research and innovation for the Pentagon and
is credited with creating the internet, voice recognition and online
language translation, would likely hand off the science to a private
company to manufacture such treatments.

The research groups are based at Duke University, Vanderbilt University,
biotech company AbCellera and AstraZeneca, the pharmaceuticals company.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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