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From then to now: the role of antibodies in our response to COVID-19

In January 2020, the Director-General of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. For scientists, this confirmed the urgent need to develop mass-scale testing for the disease, and find treatments that would prevent infection or reduce symptoms. We have come a long way since then. Testing and identification programs across the globe are limiting the spread of the virus, and the first vaccines – with emergency-use authorization in several regions – are already being administered to those most likely to become seriously ill if infected.

Antibody production has been critical in the fight against COVID-19. We spoke with our antibody production specialist, Rook Khajenouri, about how antibodies have taken center stage during the pandemic.

Public understanding of science

A high proportion of the population will need to be vaccinated if immunization programs are to be successful. Scientists and medics must therefore engage with the public effectively to ensure the message around vaccines is clear. Rook talked about how a change in the public’s awareness of antibodies has already taken place:

“Before the pandemic, people knew the word ‘antibodies,’ but they didn’t necessarily understand their function. Now, people are aware that the production of antibodies is critical for the body’s ability to eradicate a virus, and that vaccines aim to stimulate this process.”

This awareness will be of benefit in the ongoing research – which will depend on recruitment of large numbers of participants – to understand how immunity to the virus might develop at a population level, following infection and immunization.  

The availability of mass testing programs

Countries with accessible and widespread "test and trace" systems recognize these as effective strategies in the fight against COVID-19. Rook described the key differences in some of the tests that are available:

“Testing for evidence of COVID-19 comes in two forms: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and antibody detection tests. PCR tests diagnose an ongoing infection by detecting parts of the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. Antibody tests, on the other hand, can tell us whether the body has launched an immune response to the virus, but not whether the virus is still present.”

Early on, there were some key findings in the literature that helped us understand the natural immune response to antigens of SARS-CoV-2. For example, it became apparent that people who survive COVID-19 continue to produce protective antibodies for months following the onset of symptoms. This was promising news because when the body launches an effective and sustained immune response to a virus, there is hope that vaccinations designed to elicit that response will offer protection.

The role of antibodies in COVID-19 vaccines

As described, it is now well established that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 can make antibodies that neutralize the virus, as well as T cells that can recognize and kill SARS-CoV-2-infected cells. These findings offered hope for those working to identify a vaccine.

Several vaccines currently under development and now in use are designed to trigger the human body to produce antibodies, which then attach to the protein spikes on the exterior of a SARS-CoV-2 particle. This process prevents the protein spikes from latching onto human cells, thereby blocking the virus from infecting cells and replicating.

A return to normal?

Going forward, it is likely that we will always need thorough testing and immunization programs against COVID-19. However, Rook offered hope that some non-COVID-19-related clinical activity may be starting to resume. Envigo is now starting to see a resurgence of customers needing antibodies for the purposes that existed before the pandemic, and that will persist long into the future.

Custom antibody production

Because of the key role of antibodies in the fight against COVID-19, it is important that scientists and companies work with a supplier that ensures the antibodies they produce are high quality, consistent, and have been generated in compliance with cGMP guidelines. The services offered at Envigo can be found here, and our specialists are available to discuss your needs.