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covid19: monoclonal antibodies, symptomatic v asymptomatic, corticosteroids, comorbidities

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keeping it simple, for now

 

Jacinta: Let’s look at monoclonal antibodies briefly before we continue with those medcram updates. Francis Collins, the somewhat controversial but scientifically reliable directer of the NIH in the USA, recently described ‘monoclonals derived from people who’ve survived covid19’ as the best hope for treatment in the absence of a vaccine. So what are these monoclonals? There are lots of useful videos on youtube that provide detail. I’m picking one from the JAMA network. The technology for producing these types of antibodies was developed in the mid-seventies. It was called ‘murine hybridoma’ technology, murine meaning ‘mice’. I remember first reading about monoclonal antibodies in a Scientific American article in the early eighties. It went straight over my head of course, but now it’s time to get a grip on them. So mice were injected with an antigen, which in general terms is a pathogen that induces an immune response. In more specific terms an antigen is a molecule or structure, part of a larger pathogenic molecule, that can be bound to by an ‘antigen-specific antibody’ or B cell receptor. B cells are lymphocytes that secrete antibodies. So the researchers induced this response, then isolated B cells from the spleen of the mice, which they fused with myelomas (cancerous plasma cells). Cancer cells are notoriously long-lived – see ‘the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ – so these fused cells, called ‘hybridomas’, act like B cells in producing antibodies, and like tumour cells in their ability to replicate. So these hybridomas can be grown in culture and each one can produce a single antibody type, which targets a single antigen type. Hence monoclonal. They can clone themselves for a specific antigen. So, once you know your antigen, you can create a ‘monoclonal’ specifically for it, or two or three to choose from. And now, with covid19 and with technological development, we can isolate monoclonal antibodies not from mice but from recovered covid19 patients. So that’s a somewhat over-simplified account – for more detailed info on monoclonal antibodies, this zero to finals video is excellent, and there are doubtless others. The target for this work is generally the S-protein of the SARS-CoV2 virus, with various particular sites being looked at, and a number of teams working on the research. Some are pretty well ready to go, with specific antibodies or sets of antibodies. The argument is that they could be used for high-risk groups such as ICU workers and nursing home clients, as a kind of temporary vaccine. 

Canto: Okay, something else to keep track of. So update 93 discusses an article published in Nature Medicine – all the authors appear to be Chinese – which looks at 37 asymptomatic covid19-infected subjects and their antibodies, compared to those of 37 symptomatic subjects. 

Jacinta: So they looked at their immunoglubulin G (IgG) levels. These are the most common types of antibody, created and released by plasma B cells. They graphed the IgG during the acute and convalescent phases, and they defined the acute phase as that in which the viral RNA was detectable in a respiratory specimen, and the convalescent phase as from eight weeks post-release from hospital. What the graph shows is that the IgG levels decreased from acute to convalescent in both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, but more in the symptomatic cases. They also looked at ‘neutralisation rates’, which presumably refers to the effect of antibody activity. A positive effect means more neutralising antibodies are produced. These seemed about the same between the phases for both groups, but another graphic shows that in the convalescent phase, the symptomatic group have substantially more neutralising antibodies. It seems from this admittedly small study that asymptomatic subjects are at risk of reinfection, after a period of time.

Canto: And even symptomatic subjects after recovery, as we have obviously no longitudinal studies on anti-viral IgG levels, as the study points out. 

Jacinta: Well that takes us to the next study, from Spain, which managed to round up almost 52000 participants. The study tells us between late April and mid-May the estimated seroprevalence (the percentage of inhabitants that had the virus) for the whole country was around 5%, depending on different test types and results, and with great variation between regions. Findings were that prevalence increased with increasing age. Looking at different jobs, those working in healthcare were clearly more at risk, and to a lesser but still significant degree, those working in nursing homes…

Canto: Which is still largely healthcare, but less trained, and often less prepared for this onslaught…

Jacinta: Point taken. And those living in the larger municipalities were more often infected than those in less densely populated regions. Interestingly, they found that the rapid (and cheap) fingerpoint test, which provides results within ten minutes, was pretty close to being as effective as an immunological assay, which is important as the delay in test results has been a major issue.

Canto: Amazing. Why aren’t they using this all the time? Everywhere?

Jacinta: That’s another issue – maybe later. Anyway, much of this study confirms the many smaller studies that have been conducted. They found that healthcare workers comprised 24% of all confirmed cases. This may be partly because they had more access to testing. There is so much to glean from this study, I can only skim. But here are some very interesting remarks in their conclusion:

One in three infections seems to be asymptomatic, while a substantial number of symptomatic cases remained untested. Despite the high impact of covid19 in Spain, prevalence estimates remain low, and are clearly insufficient to provide herd immunity. This cannot be achieved without accepting the collateral damage of many deaths in the susceptible population and overburdening of health systems. In this situation, social distance methods and efforts to identify and isolate new cases are imperative for future epidemic control.

Canto: So there are no easy solutions, and even a vaccine is not necessarily going to be the magic bullet everyone’s hoping for. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we haven’t eaten any vaccines yet. They won’t be on the menu for a while, and it’ll be a lot longer before we can gauge their nutritional value.

Jacinta: Yes, what you’re saying is, we don’t know how long antibodies to this virus will last. We’re still in unexplored terrain with respect to this very unusual and deadly virus. An article published on the Jama Network quite a while ago is still relevant now in its conclusions, as nothing we’ve so far found disconfirms it: 

… the immune response to covid19 is not yet fully understood and definitive data on post-infection immunity are lacking. Amidst the uncertainty of this public health crisis, thoughtful and rigorous science will be essential to inform public health policy, planning and practice. 

Canto: Frustrating to many. So with update 94 we’re getting towards mid-July and they’re noting that things are hotting up, as the weather is cooling down, in Australia, though of course it bears no comparison to the US tragedy. They were talking about things getting worse in their autumn, but summer hasn’t given them any sort of break. 

Jacinta: So update 94 first looks at inhaled corticosteroids, one of many medications being considered and perhaps used by health professionals, others being ivermectin (a broad-spectrum anti-parasitic drug) and nitric oxide, all without solid RCT-type evidence. Even so, case reports and other low-level studies show promise, and these are arguably desperate times. A study presented by Dr Seheult suggested that some corticosteroids showed positive immunological effects in case reports and in vitro. Interestingly, asthmatics have been prescribed corticosteroids quite regularly…

Canto: As have I, from time to time. At least I think it was corticosteroid…

Jacinta: Well, that’s interesting, I know you’re not asthmatic but with bronchiectasis you have asthma-like symptoms at times. And the good news for you, and generally interesting news for us all, is that ‘asthma patients with covid19 do not appear to have a higher rate of hospitalisation or mortality compared with other covid19 patients’. Indeed it may be the opposite, as data from Wuhan indicates that less than 1% of their hospitalised patients had asthma, compared to 5% in the general population. In New York, too, asthma wasn’t even in the top ten comorbidities, which is pretty striking for a virus that hits the lungs first. Similarly, COPD, which your ailment is surely associated with, comes in below diabetes, renal disease and a whole range of cardiovascular issues as a comorbidity factor. A possible reason for this is that the kind of chronic inflammation produced by asthma and COPD is associated with reduced ACE2 expression, meaning fewer receptors for the virus. So these conditions could actually be protective. And they might also be on corticosteroid inhalers, which may also be protective.

Canto: That sounds great. Let’s leave it there before I hear any bad news…

References

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 93: Antibodies, Immunity, & Prevalence of COVID-19 – New Data from Spain

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 94: Inhaled Steroids COVID-19 Treatment; New Pneumonia in Kazakhstan?

How do monoclonal antibodies work? Rituximab, infliximab, adalimumab and others

Coronavirus Treatment and Prevention with Monoclonal Antibodies