In a remarkable breakthrough, researchers have identified a set of potent antibodies capable of neutralizing virtually all known variants of COVID-19. Additionally, these antibodies can tackle other potentially deadly animal coronaviruses that may cause future pandemics.
This discovery could steer the course of development for therapeutics that can effectively combat both current and future coronaviruses.
The study, led by the Duke-NUS Medical School, also involved an international team of experts from the National University of Singapore, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the United States.
For the investigation, the researchers isolated antibodies from the blood of a patient who had previously recovered from SARS and was later vaccinated against COVID-19.
This unique combination spawned a highly potent and expansive antibody response, which demonstrated the capability to neutralize almost all tested coronaviruses.
Professor Wang Linfa is a globally recognized bat virus expert with Duke-NUS’ Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Programme and the senior author of the study.
“We sought to address the lack of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies for treatment and prophylaxis of high-risk COVID-19 patients, as all previously approved monoclonal antibodies have lost efficacy against newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 variants,” explained Professor Wang. “This work provides encouraging evidence that pan-coronavirus vaccines are possible if they can ‘educate’ the human immune system in the right way.”
Professor Wang further emphasized that the study brings forward optimistic evidence that pan-coronavirus vaccines are feasible if they can adequately “educate” the human immune system.
Six potent antibodies that could neutralize a range of coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and its variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron, the original SARS virus, and several animal coronaviruses were identified in the study. Among these, three antibodies demonstrated remarkable breadth and potency.
“Three antibodies stood out as exceptionally broad and potent, capable of neutralizing all tested SARS-related viruses at very low concentrations,” said study first author Dr. Chia Wan Ni, a former postdoctoral fellow in Professor Wang’s lab who now works with Singapore start-up CoV Biotechnology.
The most robust antibody, named E7, stands out for its ability to neutralize both SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 sarbecoviruses, animal sarbecoviruses, and newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the Omicron XBB.1.16.
“The neutralizing potency and breadth of the E7 antibody exceeded any other SARS-related coronavirus antibodies we’ve come across,” said Dr. Chia. “It maintained activity against even the newest Omicron subvariants, while most other antibodies lose effectiveness.”
E7’s neutralizing mechanism involves a unique mode of binding that unites two parts of the spike protein, used by the coronavirus to infiltrate cells. This binding appears to deactivate the spike and obstruct the virus’s ability to alter its shape, a crucial process it employs to infect cells and cause disease.
These novel findings help uncover the vulnerabilities of coronaviruses and offer templates to formulate vaccines and drugs to combat COVID-19 variants and prospective coronavirus threats.
Professor Wang expressed optimism about the findings, saying: “This work demonstrates that induction of broad sarbecovirus-neutralizing antibodies is possible – it just needs the right immunogenic sequence and method of delivery. This provides hope that the design of a universal coronavirus vaccine is achievable.”
Considering its high potential to neutralize future sarbecoviruses, the E7 antibody could be a valuable tool in preventing the next pandemic instigated by these viruses.
The research team plans to further evaluate the antibody’s potential as a prophylactic and therapeutic agent against current and future coronaviruses.
Professor Patrick Tan is the Senior Vice-Dean for Research at Duke-NUS Medical School. He praised the collaborative effort led by Professor Wang and his team.
“This underscores the pivotal role basic science research plays in advancing knowledge, with the goal of discovering new approaches to transform medicine and improve lives,” said Professor Tan.
The research is published in the journal Science Advances.