May 6, 2020/Infectious Disease

Understanding COVID-19, Antibody Testing and Are We Even Close to Finding a Cure?

The latest from the front line

Finding the COVID-19 antibiotic

We’ve accepted the harsh realities of COVID-19 and we’ve adjusted our lives accordingly. And yet, we still have so many unanswered questions like why has COVID-19 taken such a detrimental toll and where are we in the process of finding a cure?

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To get a better idea of where science is headed, here are some insights from Serpil Erzurum, MD, Chair of the Lerner Research Institute.

Q: How is COVID-19 different from viruses like Ebola, H1N1 (swine flu) or SARS?

Dr. Erzurum: These viruses are similar because they’re encoded with Ribonucleic acid or RNA. We have DNA in our cells. They all infect the human host, but the difference between them and COVID-19 is this coronavirus is infectious before you become sick. It is infectious while you look very healthy and that’s a very big difference between this coronavirus and the other viruses.

Q: If you’ve been infected with the coronavirus, can you become infected again?

Dr. Erzurum: This virus is very similar to the first SARS virus where immunity was very effective. Current data suggests that immunity occurs in people who’ve had the virus and that’s effective for preventing them from getting infected again. The best evidence that we do have for effective immunity is the fact that we can take plasma from an individual who was infected, transfer that immunity passively to somebody who does have the infection, and it helps them recover. All those things strongly support that immunity does develop and it’s effective at neutralizing the virus.

Q: Why isn’t antibody testing for COVID-19 available yet?

Dr. Erzurum: The problem is that there are a lot of coronaviruses. For example, the common cold is a coronavirus. Immune testing to diagnose COVID-19 is difficult to do because if you’ve had a common cold a few weeks before and we tested your body, it would look like you have immunity to coronavirus, but not necessarily to COVID-19, and not necessarily that protectant from catching it. It would be a false reassurance to do immunoglobulin testing as a diagnostic strategy.

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Q: When do you think that we can expect to have a vaccine for COVID-19?

Dr. Erzurum: The usual strategy for making a vaccine is you take the live virus, you inject it into chicken eggs, you allow the virus to grow, and then you deactivate it and inject that into people so immunity develops. When the real virus comes along, you’re protected. That process can take 12 to 18 months. But there are new strategies where we don’t have to grow the virus, we can take the nuclear material that encodes part of the virus (the surface proteins) and inject them into the body. Your body will recognize it as being foreign. Antibodies are again developed and they attack the surface proteins so they go away. Now, if the virus enters your body, your body remembers those proteins and the antibodies come and destroy the virus.

There are so many new technologies now that are using this type of strategy. Many studies are already in phase one and some are even entering phase two and phase three. Phase three means large studies and quicker paths to having something available for our community.

You can watch Dr. Erzurum’s full interview with Cleveland Clinic CEO, President and Morton L. Mandel CEO Chair Tom Mihaljevic, MD here.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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