The Antibody Avenger and the Quest for a COVID-19 Cure

Since the early days of the pandemic, Jacob Glanville, a 40-year-old skateboarding immunologist with a silver tongue and a knack for self-promotion, has been proclaiming that he would develop the world’s best COVID-19 treatment. Few competitors believed him. Most just scoffed. But Glanville, then the chief executive officer of a tiny San Francisco company called Distributed Bio, has made significant progress, successfully creating an antibody that neutralizes the coronavirus in hamsters, an animal model for humans. He’s far behind the pharmaceutical giants Regeneron and Eli Lilly—both of which won FDA approval of antibody-based treatments in November 2020—but his work is still important. With a total of $ 9 million invested so far, his discoveries have cost only a fraction of what the big firms have spent on their research. He says his treatment will work well and be more affordable—think $ 900 per dose instead of the $ 2,000 per that Regeneron charges. “I’ve got the best-in-class therapeutic,” Glanville told me recently, repeating a line he’s used often since April 2019.

Given the FDA’s approval of the first vaccine on December 11, 2020, you might be wondering why you should care about Glanville or his drug. It’s because vaccines alone won’t end the pandemic. That’s especially true in the U.S., where so many people see their freedom to get sick and pass it along as a basic right. The chilling truth is that, at this point, it’s effectively impossible to vaccinate enough people worldwide to vanquish COVID-19. And so, as with the flu, the deadly virus is likely to remain resident among us, destined to cause breakouts every year. You should care about Glanville—along with the many other drug manufacturers still pushing their creations forward—because, odds are, the best COVID-19 treatments aren’t available yet. If Glanville is right, he could save many lives all over the planet.

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