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Antibodies found that enhance SARS-CoV-2 infection - what does this mean for vaccines?

This article was published on
June 4, 2021

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Research from Japan has found that infection with SARS-CoV-2 can generate both neutralizing antibodies that protect against infection and infection-enhancing antibodies. The research analysed antibodies derived from COVID-19 patients.

Research from Japan has found that infection with SARS-CoV-2 can generate both neutralizing antibodies that protect against infection and infection-enhancing antibodies. The research analysed antibodies derived from COVID-19 patients.

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An infectivity-enhancing site on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein targeted by antibodies

Not peer-reviewed
This work has not been scrutinised by independent experts, or the story does not contain research data to review (for example an opinion piece). If you are reporting on research that has yet to go through peer-review (eg. conference abstracts and preprints) be aware that the findings can change during the peer review process
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Expert Comments: 

Dr Wen Shi Lee

That's a pretty interesting study that looked at whether certain spike-specific monoclonal antibodies could enhance infection. A similar study also detected similar antibodies in convalescent individuals (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.12.31.424729v2.full.pdf).

What's important to note in this study is that, even though these monoclonal antibodies could enhance infection in vitro, they still protected monkeys and mice from SARS-CoV-2 replication in vivo.

This is important as in vitro experiments may not always reflect what happens in animal models or humans. Furthermore, the study by Li et al found that the infection-enhancing antibodies did not work in the presence of strongly neutralising antibodies. This is promising as vaccination does induce strongly neutralising antibodies, which are thought to be the correlate of protection for COVID-19 vaccines.

Neither of these studies analysed whether these antibodies were present following vaccination, so I can't comment on whether they exist in vaccinated people. Though the fact that even a single dose of a vaccine shows some level of protection against COVID-19 is promising to me that antibodies do more good than harm (if at all). We shouldn't forget that vaccines do induce T cell responses that may also contribute to protection against COVID-19.

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