One of the challenges in the fight against COVID-19 is that vaccines and boosters, while effective in protecting most people against serious infections, are often ineffective in people with weakened immune systems. In August, however, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel claimed to have identified a pair of antibodies that neutralize all known strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the process, they may have taken a step toward completely eliminating the need for boosters to combat new strains as they evolve.
According to an August article published in the journal Communications Biology, a pair of antibodies – TAU-1109 and TAU-2310 – may play a crucial role in stopping the infection process. If you imagine the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a sphere surrounded by spikes, then antibodies are Y-shaped molecules that fight this sphere and spikes at targeted points. TAU-1109 and TAU-2310 appear to choose an area of the viral spike sphere that is very different from where most antibodies choose to go.
This made them less effective at combating the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, but more so when it comes to the ubiquitous strains circulating today, including the omicron strain.
“According to our findings, the efficiency of the first antibody, TAU-1109, to neutralize the Omicron strain is 92%, and to neutralize the Delta strain, 90%,” said Dr Natalia Freund of Tel University. Aviv, the lead researcher behind the study, explained in a press release. “The second antibody, TAU-2310, neutralizes the Omicron variant with 84% efficiency and the Delta variant with 97% efficiency.”
In the process, they may have taken a step toward completely eliminating the need for boosters to combat new strains as they evolve.
The researchers argue that the technologies developed from their discovery could make repeated booster vaccinations unnecessary and offer a way to boost immunity in at-risk populations. At the same time, as the study authors point out, there is an ongoing need for research into the antibodies humans produce when they encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 continue to emerge, it is important to assess the cross-neutralizing capabilities of antibodies naturally elicited during wild-type SARS-CoV-2 infection,” explain the authors.
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Scientists and medical experts said the study was carried out rigorously. Dr. Russell Medford, president of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, told Salon via email that this was “a well-conducted study with appropriate conclusions drawn from the results of the study”. Dr. William Haseltine, a biologist renowned for his work in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, told Salon that this “appears to be a credible study, one of many studies describing neutralizing antibodies and mapping them to their binding sites”.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, helped put the new study into a broader immunological context. Antibodies are the part of the immune system that deals with the least serious threats to our health, she said.
“To put it simply, antibodies protect us from mild infections, but cellular (T and B cell) immunity protects us from serious diseases,” Gandhi wrote in Salon. “The variants tended to have a high degree of mutation in the spike protein, which binds to the host cell receptor (called the ACE2 receptor). This study verifies that monoclonal antibodies directed to the ACE2 binding site are more affected by viral mutations than monoclonal antibodies that bind to regions outside the receptor binding site.”
In a sense, this new development means that the part of the immune system that deals with lesser threats can be harnessed, as scientists realize that these two aforementioned antibodies fought off the SARS-CoV-2 virus in distinct ways.
“In simple terms, this means that antibodies generated by the body directed against other parts of the virus beyond the site that binds to our host cell receptor work better against the variants,” Gandhi explained.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, concluded that the study points the development of disease-fighting technology in a promising direction. At the same time, more research needs to be conducted.
“We need a lot more research to better understand the biomarkers that can be used to diagnose and aid in the prognosis of vaccinated and unvaccinated people who are infected with SARS-CoV–2,” Benjamin explained.
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