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Preventive COVID-19 antibody injection in the works — blood service chief

With vaccine still many months away, Magen David Adom is preparing a stopgap solution to defend the most vulnerable in a second wave; but its effectiveness is not assured

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Plasma containing antibodies is collected from recovered coronavirus patients in Israel. (courtesy of Magen David Adom)
Plasma containing antibodies is collected from recovered coronavirus patients in Israel. (courtesy of Magen David Adom)

Israel’s national blood service is racing to develop an antibody injection in a bid to defend the most vulnerable citizens from the coronavirus during a second wave.

“We all know that an active vaccine will take time, yet we’re all worried about next winter and we want to be prepared,” Eilat Shinar, director of Magen David Adom blood services, told The Times of Israel.

“The hope is that it will prevent infection,” she said, revealing that she expects the injection to be produced in four to six weeks, followed by a short testing period.

Prof. Eilat Shinar, director of Magen David Adom (MDA) blood service, in the blood donation room of Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, September 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Her team is taking plasma from recovered coronavirus patients and creating a concentrate of antibodies which it hopes to give to those who would be most at risk in a second wave of COVID-19.

This concentrate — or hyperimmune globulin — which will be injected intravenously, is not the same as a vaccine, which prompts the body to create antibodies to fight viruses or bacteria. Instead, the “passive” injection will contain preformed antibodies. And while anticipated coronavirus vaccines are expected to give relatively full protection, Shinar said there are no assurances regarding the extent to which the globulin injection will work.

However, hyperimmune globulin does have a successful track record with some other diseases, including hepatitis A.

The initiative comes on the back of an existing antibody program for the coronavirus. Since April 1, MDA has been collecting plasma containing antibodies from recovered patients and giving them to patients who are sick. So far, 52 patients have been treated with the antibodies and Shinar reports that the overall picture is “encouraging.” Some moderate patients have made major improvements and even some more serious patients are showing improvement in blood pressure, respiratory function, and kidney function, Shinar said.

She is cautious about drawing firm conclusions, stressing that numbers are small and there is no control group, meaning there is no scientific way of knowing whether the antibodies are responsible for improvements.

But Shinar believes that outcomes are encouraging enough to move forward with plans to administer antibodies — sometimes known as “passive immunization” — as a preventive measure, not just a treatment.

Medical staff at the coronavirus unit, in the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Shinar is hopeful that the product will be ready and approved by regulators before the winter. It’s unclear how many doses can be made from the plasma of one recovered patient, but she said the treatment would be available for the most vulnerable populations, not for all Israelis.

Shinar said that while plasma from recovered coronavirus patients had initially been in short supply, now that virus cases are waning the number of recovered patients able to donate plasma is increasing.

“Only now are we at a point where we have enough plasma to make immune globulin for this use,” said Shinar.

In a separate development, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday said he witnessed a “significant breakthrough” by Israel’s defense biological research institute in developing an antibody to COVID-19 which his office said could be produced on a commercial scale. The Defense Ministry declined a Times of Israel request to discuss the matter.

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