6 May 2020

Latest COVID-19 science updates: antibody research, lockdown impact and virus mutations

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, scientists are rushing to carry out and publish research which will help us understand how the virus works, and how the disease it causes can be treated.

Each week, Channel 4 News will provide a summary of key research papers, studies or developments from the world of COVID-19 science.

Study identifies potential antibody therapy for coronavirus

Scientists in the Netherlands have identified a type of antibody – proteins produced as part of an immune response – which may be used as a therapy for coronavirus.

The researchers at Utrecht University published their findings in the journal Nature Communications on Monday. In it they described an antibody which in the lab was able to neutralise SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the disease COVID-19, as it was previously understood to do so with the virus which causes SARS.

Antibodies do this neutralising by binding to specific parts of a virus cell, and stopping it from working.

The experiment was carried out in isolated cells in a lab, however, using antibodies produced by mice. Experts commenting on the findings said the results were promising but a long way from being a definite human therapy.

In the past month scientists have already seen promising results when COVID-19 patients were treated with so-called convalescent plasma – a part of blood which is isolated from patients who have already recovered from coronavirus.

This therapy is thought to work because of the antibodies present in the plasma, which when transferred to a new patient helps their body combat the virus.

But plasma therapy relies on a supply of blood from recovered patients, so is difficult to rollout en masse. That’s why therapies described in this new study, involving monoclonal antibodies which can be mass produced artificially, could have a big impact.

The study findings would now need to be proven to work in animal models, such as real mice, before being considered for human clinical trials – a multi-step process which would normally take years.

Antibody therapies would be distinct from a vaccine, when one is developed.

Study outlines how lifting of lockdown could see a resurgence of coronavirus deaths

A study of the impacts of lockdown in Italy has suggested that even a slight increase in people’s movement could lead to a resurgence of coronavirus transmission greater than what the country has already seen.

The study, published by Imperial College London on Monday, used mobility data from Google to construct a mathematical model of how the Italian population’s movements across the country changed during lockdown.

The researchers then modelled three possible future scenarios as the country’s exit strategy from quarantine is phased in: mobility not changing from lockdown levels, mobility going back to 20 percent of pre-lockdown levels, and mobility going back to 40 percent of pre-lockdown levels.

The study authors said: “In the constant mobility scenario we predict a continued reduction in deaths, however in the20 percent and40 percent scenarios, while initially deaths may continue to decrease, there will eventually be a resurgent epidemic that, without accounting for additional interventions, may be larger in size than the first wave.”

The authors noted that their model does not account for other interventions, such as new therapies for treating the virus, or contact tracing – both which could potentially decrease death rates and counteract any increase in mobility and virus transmission. Maintaining social distancing, increased testing and early isolation of infections are therefore of “paramount importance”, they said.

Linda Bauld, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh who was not an author on the study, said: “The report sends a stark warning to other countries that did not take early action to contain virus transmission. It suggests that unless they take urgent action to implement a ‘test-trace-isolate’ (TTI) approach, any releasing of lockdown measures could result in a rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases and deaths.”

Study indicating coronavirus has not mutated significantly

A study has been published which suggests that there is still only one clinically significant type of coronavirus in circulation, and that the virus mutates slowly.

The research confirms earlier reports on the virus, and is seen as encouraging for those scientists developing a vaccine. A virus which mutates quickly and yields different strains easily is particularly hard to vaccinate against, as new vaccines may be needed for new strains.

This study, published last week in Virus Evolution, is a review of earlier research which suggested that there are two types of coronavirus, and that one is more “aggressive” than the other. The more recent authors say that their findings “show that the major conclusions of that [earlier] paper cannot be substantiated.”

That’s because the earlier research only identified two genetic variations in the virus, which researchers now claim is not evidence of two functionally different viruses.

Commenting on the findings, George Griffin, Emeritus  Professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at St George’s University of London, said the results were encouraging but that the studies would need to be repeated periodically to track the virus’ evolution as time passes.

Last week’s update can be found here.