It’s now clear that nearly everyone who recovers from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) produces antibodies that specifically target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the infection. Yet many critical questions remain. A major one is: just how well do those particular antibodies neutralize the virus to fight off the infection and help someone recover from COVID-19? Fortunately, most people get better—but should the typical antibody response take the credit?
A new NIH-funded study of nearly 150 people who recovered from COVID-19 offers some essential insight. The study, published in the journal Nature, shows that most people, in fact, do produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But there is a catch: 99 percent of the study’s participants didn’t make enough neutralizing antibodies to mount an ideal immune response.
The good news is that when researchers looked at individuals who mounted a strong immune response, they were able to identify three antibodies (depicted above) that were extremely effective at neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. By mass-producing copies of these antibodies as so-called monoclonal antibodies, the researchers can now better evaluate their potential as treatments to help people who don’t make strongly neutralizing antibodies, or not enough of them.
These findings come from a team led by Michel Nussenzweig, Paul Bieniasz, and Charles Rice at The Rockefeller University, New York, and Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In the Nussenzweig lab, the team has spent years searching for broadly neutralizing antibodies against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its great urgency, Nussenzweig and team shifted their focus recently to look for promising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.
Antibodies are blood proteins that the immune system makes to neutralize viruses or other foreign invaders. The immune system doesn’t make just one antibody to thwart an invader; it makes a whole family of antibodies. But not all antibodies in that family are created equal. They can vary widely in where they latch onto a virus like SARS-CoV-2, and that determines how effective each will be at blocking it from infecting human cells. That’s one reason why people respond differently to infections such as COVID-19.
In early April, Nussenzweig’s team began analyzing samples from volunteer survivors who visited The Rockefeller Hospital to donate plasma, which contains the antibodies. The volunteers had all recovered from mild-to-severe cases of COVID-19, showing their first signs of illness about 40 days prior to their first plasma collection.
Not surprisingly, all volunteers had produced antibodies in response to the virus. To test the strength of the antibodies, the researchers used a special assay that shows how effective each one is at blocking the virus from infecting human cells in lab dishes.
Overall, most of the plasma samples—118 of 149—showed at best poor to modest neutralizing activity. In about one-third of individuals, their plasma samples had below detectable levels of neutralizing activity. It’s possible those individuals just resolved the infection quickly, before more potent antibodies were produced.
More intriguing to the researchers were the results from two individuals that showed an unusually strong ability to neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Among these two “elite responders” and four other individuals, the researchers identified 40 different antibodies that could neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But again, not all antibodies are created equal. Three neutralized the virus even when present at extremely low levels, and they now will be studied further as possible monoclonal antibodies.
The team determined that those strongly neutralizing antibodies bind three distinct sites on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the coronavirus spike protein. This portion of the virus is important because it allows SARS-CoV-2 to bind and infect human cells. Importantly, when the researchers looked more closely at plasma samples with poor neutralizing ability, they found that they also contained those RBD-binding antibodies, just not in very large numbers.
These findings help not only to understand the immune response to COVID-19, they are also critical for vaccine design, revealing what a strong neutralizing antibody for SARS-CoV-2 should look like to help the immune system win. If a candidate vaccine can generate such strongly neutralizing antibodies, researchers will know that they are on the right track.
While this research showed that there’s a lot of variability in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, it appears that most of us are inherently capable of producing antibodies to neutralize this devastating virus. That brings more reason for hope that the many vaccines now under study to elicit such neutralizing antibodies in sufficient numbers may afford us with much-needed immune protection.
Researchers are working hard to produce precise, 3D molecular maps to guide the development of safe, effective ways of combating the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. While there’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the promise of antibody-based tests and treatments, this map you see above highlights another important use of antibodies: to inform efforts to design a vaccine.
This image shows the crystal structure of a human antibody (heavy chain in orange, light chain in yellow), which is a blood protein our immune systems produce to attack viruses and other foreign invaders. This particular antibody, called CR3022, is bound to a key surface protein of the novel coronavirus (white).
The CR3022 antibody actually doesn’t come from someone who has recovered from COVID-19. Instead, it was obtained from a person who, nearly two decades ago, survived a bout of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The SARS virus, which disappeared in 2004 after a brief outbreak in humans, is closely related to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
In a recent paper in the journal Science, the NIH-funded lab of Ian Wilson, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, along with colleagues at The University of Hong Kong, sought to understand how the human immune system interacts with and neutralizes this highly infectious virus . The lab did so by employing high-resolution X-ray crystallography tools . They captured the atomic structure of this antibody bound to its target by shooting X-rays through its crystallized form. (An antibody measures about 10 nanometers; a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.)
Other researchers had shown previously that CR3022 cross-reacts with the novel coronavirus, although the antibody doesn’t bind tightly enough to neutralize and stop it from infecting cells. So, Wilson’s team went to work to learn precisely where the antibody attaches to the novel virus. Those sites are of special interest because they highlight spots on a virus that are vulnerable to attack—and, as such, potentially good targets for vaccine designers.
A key finding in the new paper is that the antibody binds a highly similar site on both the SARS and novel coronaviruses. Those sites differ in each virus by just four amino acids, the building blocks of a protein.
This is particularly interesting because the antibody pictured above is bound to a spike protein, which is the appendage on both the SARS and novel coronavirus that enables them to bind to a key receptor protein on the surface of human cells, called ACE2. This binding activity marks the first step for these viruses in gaining entry into human cells and infecting them.
The human antibody shown in this image locks onto the virus’s spike protein at a different location than where the human ACE2 protein binds to the novel coronavirus. Intriguingly, the antibody binds to a spot on the novel coronavirus that is usually hidden, except for when virus shapeshifts its structure in order to infect a cell.
The findings suggest that a successful vaccine may be one that elicits antibodies that targets this same spot, but binds more tightly than the one seen above, thereby protecting human cells against the virus that causes COVID-19. However, Wilson notes that this study has just uncovered one potential vulnerability of the novel coronavirus, and it is likely the virus likely has many more that could be revealed with further study.
To continue in this quest to design a safe and effective vaccine, Wilson and his colleagues are now gathering blood samples to collect antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. So, we can look forward to seeing some even more revealing images soon.
The recent COVID-19 outbreak of a novel type of coronavirus that began in China has prompted a massive global effort to contain and slow its spread. Despite those efforts, over the last month the virus has begun circulating outside of China in multiple countries and territories.
Cases have now appeared in the United States involving some affected individuals who haven’t traveled recently outside the country. They also have had no known contact with others who have recently arrived from China or other countries where the virus is spreading. The NIH and other U.S. public health agencies stand on high alert and have mobilized needed resources to help not only in its containment, but in the development of life-saving interventions.
On the treatment and prevention front, some encouraging news was recently reported. In record time, an NIH-funded team of researchers has created the first atomic-scale map of a promising protein target for vaccine development . This is the so-called spike protein on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As shown above, a portion of this spiky surface appendage (green) allows the virus to bind a receptor on human cells, causing other portions of the spike to fuse the viral and human cell membranes. This process is needed for the virus to gain entry into cells and infect them.
Preclinical studies in mice of a candidate vaccine based on this spike protein are already underway at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An early-stage phase I clinical trial of this vaccine in people is expected to begin within weeks. But there will be many more steps after that to test safety and efficacy, and then to scale up to produce millions of doses. Even though this timetable will potentially break all previous speed records, a safe and effective vaccine will take at least another year to be ready for widespread deployment.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including some that cause “the common cold” in healthy humans. In fact, these viruses are found throughout the world and account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults.
This outbreak of COVID-19 marks the third time in recent years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause severe disease and death in some people. Earlier coronavirus outbreaks included SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared two years later, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and continues to affect people in small numbers.
Soon after COVID-19 emerged, the new coronavirus, which is closely related to SARS, was recognized as its cause. NIH-funded researchers including Jason McLellan, an alumnus of the VRC and now at The University of Texas at Austin, were ready. They’d been studying coronaviruses in collaboration with NIAID investigators for years, with special attention to the spike proteins.
Just two weeks after Chinese scientists reported the first genome sequence of the virus , McLellan and his colleagues designed and produced samples of its spike protein. Importantly, his team had earlier developed a method to lock coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that makes them both easier to analyze structurally via the high-resolution imaging tool cryo-electron microscopy and to use in vaccine development efforts.
After locking the spike protein in the shape it takes before fusing with a human cell to infect it, the researchers reconstructed its atomic-scale 3D structural map in just 12 days. Their results, published in Science, confirm that the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19 is quite similar to that of its close relative, the SARS virus. It also appears to bind human cells more tightly than the SARS virus, which may help to explain why the new coronavirus appears to spread more easily from person to person, mainly by respiratory transmission.
McLellan’s team and his NIAID VRC counterparts also plan to use the stabilized spike protein as a probe to isolate naturally produced antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Such antibodies might form the basis of a treatment for people who’ve been exposed to the virus, such as health care workers.
The NIAID is now working with the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, to use the latest findings to develop a vaccine candidate using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that serve as templates for making proteins. The goal is to direct the body to produce a spike protein in such a way to elicit an immune response and the production of antibodies. An early clinical trial of the vaccine in people is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Other vaccine candidates are also in preclinical development.
Meanwhile, the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for COVID-19 is already underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit . The NIH-sponsored trial will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. The first participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
As noted, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States is currently low, but the situation is changing rapidly. One of the features that makes the virus so challenging to stay in front of is its long latency period before the characteristic flu-like fever, cough, and shortness of breath manifest. In fact, people infected with the virus may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks, allowing them to pass it on to others in the meantime. You can track the reported cases in the United States on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
As the outbreak continues over the coming weeks and months, you can be certain that NIH and other U.S. public health organizations are working at full speed to understand this virus and to develop better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.
Caption: Zika virus (red), isolated from a microcephaly case in Brazil. The virus is associated with cellular membranes in the center. Credit: NIAID
Last February, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency over concerns about very serious birth defects in Brazil and their possible link to Zika virus. But even before then, concerns about the unprecedented spread of Zika virus in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had prompted NIH-funded scientists to step up their efforts to combat this emerging infectious disease threat. Over the last year, research aimed at understanding the mosquito-borne virus has progressed rapidly, and we now appear to be getting closer to a Zika vaccine.
In a recent study in the journal Nature, researchers found that a single dose of either of two experimental vaccines completely protected mice against a major viral strain responsible for the Zika outbreak in Brazil . Caution is certainly warranted when extrapolating these (or any other) findings from mice to people. But, taking into account the fact that researchers have already developed safe and effective human vaccines for several related viruses, the new work represents a very encouraging milestone on the road toward a much-needed Zika vaccine for humans.