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Scientists find Coronavirus’ weak spots. Here is what they want to do next

The map, produced in collaboration with 56 research groups on four continents, is enabling scientists to devise blueprints for better vaccines

Erica Ollmann Saphire spent the past year and a half profiling the coronavirus, creating intricate three-dimensional images in her San Diego lab to understand its most problematic features. That information is now revealing the pathogen’s weak spots and ways to exploit them.

Using an 11-foot (3.35 meter) tall microscope, the most powerful commercially available, she’s scoured hundreds of different antibodies against the Covid culprit to identify its salient features. The research at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology led to a study Thursday in Science that gives the most detailed map yet of how to circumvent the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s panoply of mutations and variants.

The map, produced in collaboration with 56 research groups on four continents, is enabling scientists to devise blueprints for better vaccines and treatments to thwart the hyper-infectious delta strain, which has become dominant globally, and its successors.

“We now have a framework for selecting durable antibody cocktails for Covid-19 treatment,” said Ollmann Saphire, who is president and chief executive officer at the La Jolla Institute.

The aim is find two potent and complimentary antibodies that can be combined into a $25 therapy for Covid-19 patients who haven’t been vaccinated, couldn’t be vaccinated, or have developed a breakthrough infection.

“We’re probably a long way from $25, but the goal is to bring it down from $1,000 to something that could treat more people,” she said in a Zoom call Friday. “To be practically useful, it’s got to be something that’s durable and resistant to the variants that are circulating.”

The World Health Organization on Friday recommended a combination of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies — casirivimab and imdevimab — developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. for treating Covid patients at the highest risk of severe disease, and urged drugmakers and governments to address the high price and limited production of the medication.

One “rock star” antibody developed by a collaborating lab is so far outperforming more than 350 other candidates analyzed by the Coronavirus Immunotherapy Consortium that Ollmann Saphire is leading. It’s been shown to block immune-evading variants and provide 100% protection against Covid-19 in lab mice.

“I have my eye on that one, and I’m looking to see what we might want to pair with it to take forward” into clinical studies, she said.

Research on mice is also pointing to a more potent approach to vaccine development based on a more stable version of the coronavirus’s spike protein made in her lab that could be used by new or existing inoculations against SARS-CoV-2.

“It’s fantastic,” Ollmann Saphire said. “We can make gobs of it and it stays in the right shape and structure for a month in a drawer in the lab at room temperature.