Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You may have heard about the new variants of SARS-CoV-2—the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—that have appeared in other parts of the world and have now been detected in the United States. These variants, particularly one called B.1.351 that was first identified in South Africa, have raised growing concerns about the extent to which their mutations might help them evade current antibody treatments and highly effective vaccines.
While researchers take a closer look, it’s already possible in the laboratory to predict which mutations will help SARS-CoV-2 evade our therapies and vaccines, and even to prepare for the emergence of new mutations before they occur. In fact, an NIH-funded study, which originally appeared as a bioRxiv pre-print in November and was recently peer-reviewed and published in Science, has done exactly that. In the study, researchers mapped all possible mutations that would allow SARS-CoV-2 to resist treatment with three different monoclonal antibodies developed for treatment of COVID-19 .
The work, led by Jesse Bloom, Allison Greaney, and Tyler Starr, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, focused on the receptor binding domain (RBD), a key region of the spike protein that studs SARS-CoV-2’s outer surface. The virus uses RBD to anchor itself to the ACE2 receptor of human cells before infecting them. That makes the RBD a prime target for the antibodies that our bodies generate to defend against the virus.
In the new study, researchers used a method called deep mutational scanning to find out which mutations positively or negatively influence the RBD from being able to bind to ACE2 and/or thwart antibodies from striking their target. Here’s how it works: Rather than waiting for new mutations to arise, the researchers created a library of RBD fragments, each of which contained a change in a single nucleotide “letter” that would alter the spike protein’s shape and/or function by swapping one amino acid for another. It turns out that there are more than 3,800 such possible mutations, and Bloom’s team managed to make all but a handful of those versions of the RBD fragment.
The team then used a standard laboratory approach to measure systematically how each of those single-letter typos altered RBD’s ability to bind ACE2 and infect human cells. They also measured how those changes affected three different therapeutic antibodies from recognizing and binding to the viral RBD. Those antibodies include two developed by Regeneron (REGN10933 and REGN10987), which have been granted emergency use authorization for treatment of COVID-19 together as a cocktail called REGN-COV2. They also looked at an antibody developed by Eli Lilly (LY-CoV016), which is now in phase 3 clinical trials for treating COVID-19.
Based on the data, the researchers created four mutational maps for SARS-CoV-2 to escape each of the three therapeutic antibodies, as well as for the REGN-COV2 cocktail. Their studies show most of the mutations that would allow SARS-CoV-2 to escape treatment differed between the two Regeneron antibodies. That’s encouraging because it indicates that the virus likely needs more than one mutation to become resistant to the REGN-COV2 cocktail. However, it appears there’s one spot where a single mutation could allow the virus to resist REGN-COV2 treatment.
The escape map for LY-CoV016 similarly showed a number of mutations that could allow the virus to escape. Importantly, while some of those changes might impair the virus’s ability to cause infection, most of them appeared to come at little to no cost to the virus to reproduce.
How do these laboratory data relate to the real world? To begin to explore this question, the researchers teamed up with Jonathan Li, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. They looked at an immunocompromised patient who’d had COVID-19 for an unusually long time and who was treated with the Regeneron cocktail for 145 days, giving the virus time to replicate and acquire new mutations.
Viral genome data from the infected patient showed that these maps can indeed be used to predict likely paths of viral evolution. Over the course of the antibody treatment, SARS-CoV-2 showed changes in the frequency of five mutations that would change the makeup of the spike protein and its RBD. Based on the newly drawn escape maps, three of those five are expected to reduce the efficacy of REGN10933. One of the others is expected to limit binding by the other antibody, REGN10987.
The researchers also looked to data from all known circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants as of Jan. 11, 2021, for evidence of escape mutations. They found that a substantial number of mutations with potential to allow escape from antibody treatment already are present, particularly in parts of Europe and South Africa.
However, it’s important to note that these maps reflect just three important antibody treatments. Bloom says they’ll continue to produce maps for other promising therapeutic antibodies. They’ll also continue to explore where changes in the virus could allow for escape from the more diverse set of antibodies produced by our immune system after a COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
While it’s possible some COVID-19 vaccines may offer less protection against some of these new variants—and recent results have suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine may not provide much protection against the South African variant, there’s still enough protection in most other current vaccines to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death. And the best way to keep SARS-CoV-2 from finding new ways to escape our ongoing efforts to end this terrible pandemic is to double down on whatever we can do to prevent the virus from multiplying and spreading in the first place.
For now, emergence of these new variants should encourage all of us to take steps to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. That means following the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often. It also means rolling up our sleeves to get vaccinated as soon as the opportunity arises.
 Prospective mapping of viral mutations that escape antibodies used to treat COVID-19.
Starr TN, Greaney AJ, Addetia A, Hannon WW, Choudhary MC, Dingens AS, Li JZ, Bloom JD.
Science. 2021 Jan 25:eabf9302.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Bloom Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases