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Treating COVID-19 With Antibodies

Treating COVID-19 With Antibodies

This article is for anyone who wants to learn more about COVID-19. The goal of this patient education activity is to help patients and their care partners talk to their doctors about antibodies to treat COVID-19 and engage in shared decision-making about treatment.

You will learn about:

  • COVID-19 and how it can affect you

  • Factors that could put you at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19

  • How your immune system works to protect you

  • What natural, monoclonal, and neutralizing antibodies are

  • Antibodies that may be used to treat COVID-19, and how they differ from vaccines

  • Questions to ask your doctor

Medicines listed in this activity have either a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or have been given an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA to treat or prevent COVID-19.

The information on COVID-19 is continually changing. The content in this activity is accurate based on the information that was available at the time of its publication. This resource is provided for educational and informational purposes only. We do not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 

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Test Your Knowledge

Before you start, please answer this question. At the end of the program, you'll have a chance to answer the question again and then see the correct answer.

The Basics of COVID-19

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. Exposure to the virus can cause an infection that usually starts in the upper respiratory tract (nose, sinuses, and throat).

COVID-19 is thought to be spread from person to person mainly by droplets in the air that form when someone who's infected talks, coughs, or sneezes. The virus can then infect someone else when the droplets enter their mouth, nose, or eyes.

Because this specific coronavirus is new (novel) and humans haven't been exposed to it before, COVID-19 is a new disease for us.

How COVID-19 Can Affect You

In most cases, COVID-19 causes mild or no symptoms and people recover fairly quickly. But for some, COVID-19 can be severe and may even cause death.

COVID-19 can damage many different organs and systems in your body. This can lead to complications, or additional problems, that can be long lasting.

Anyone can get COVID-19, but it is especially dangerous for elderly people. Being pregnant, smoking, or having certain medical conditions could also put adults, of any age, at a higher risk for severe illness.

Are You at a Higher Risk for Severe Illness?

Conditions that could put you at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include:

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity or being overweight

  • High blood pressure

  • Certain heart or blood vessel conditions

  • Chronic (long-term) kidney disease

  • Certain lung conditions, such as moderate to severe asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Liver disease

  • Cancer

  • Down syndrome

  • Certain nerve and brain conditions, including dementia

  • A weakened immune system

This is not a full list of conditions. Talk to your doctor to see if you may be at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

How Your Immune System Works to Protect You

Your immune system -- your body's natural defense system -- is made up of different organs (including bone marrow and lymph nodes), cells, and proteins. These all work together to protect you when you're exposed to outside invaders, such bacteria and viruses.

When you're exposed, your immune system is triggered and activates certain proteins and cells, including B cells (special white blood cells). B cells make proteins called antibodies that are released into your bloodstream to attack the invader and fight off infection.

It can take several days or weeks for antibodies to develop. But they stay in your body and can recognize and defend against the invader if you're exposed again.

How Antibodies Can Work Against a Virus

A virus doesn't have everything it needs to make more viruses (or reproduce) on its own. Instead, it infects healthy cells to reproduce, usually by attaching to and entering the cells.

Many antibodies work by binding to the areas on a virus that it would use to attach to and enter a cell. By doing this, the antibody stops -- or neutralizes -- the virus and protects the healthy cell from being infected. These are called neutralizing antibodies.

Close-up drawing of antibodies (in yellow) attacking and binding to a virus (in pink) to stop it from infecting cells.

What Is a Monoclonal Antibody?

Antibodies can be made by your body (natural) or made in a lab from natural sources (monoclonal). Monoclonal antibodies are designed to attack specific invaders, such as viruses, like your natural antibodies do in order to fight off infection. Neutralizing antibodies can be natural or monoclonal.

Certain neutralizing monoclonal antibodies have been made to treat COVID-19. They tightly bind to specific areas on the virus that causes COVID-19, stopping it from attaching to and entering (infecting) healthy cells.

Monoclonal Antibodies to Treat COVID-19

Monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 may be used for certain people who have mild to moderate symptoms, but are not hospitalized (not sick enough to be in the hospital) and are at a high risk for severe symptoms or the need to be hospitalized. Some may be given together, as a mixture of 2 different monoclonal antibodies.

These medicines have an Emergency Use Authorization (an EUA) from the FDA, the US agency that makes sure medicines are safe and effective. A medicine may get an EUA to treat COVID-19 when it's reasonable to believe it meets certain safety standards, and it may be effective. They are not approved to treat COVID-19, but the FDA is allowing their use because COVID-19 is a public health emergency and can be serious or life-threatening.

How Monoclonal Antibodies Are Different Than Vaccines

Monoclonal antibodies work differently against COVID-19 than vaccines do. Monoclonal antibodies can be given after infection to attack the virus and treat disease. Vaccines, on the other hand, are given before infection and are used to try to prevent disease.

Once given, a vaccine will trigger your body's immune system to make antibodies, similar to if you were exposed to the virus naturally. This can give you protection (immunity) against a future infection if you're exposed to the virus again later.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask your doctor about COVID-19 can include:

  • What should I do if I'm exposed to COVID-19?

  • What symptoms should I look for?

  • Am I at a higher risk for severe illness?

  • How does my immune system work to protect me?

  • What treatments are available, and what are their side effects?

  • Can I still get the vaccine if I've been treated for COVID-19?

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You have successfully completed the program: Treating COVID-19 With Antibodies

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Symptoms of Coronavirus

COVID-19 and People With Certain Medical Conditions

What to Do If You're Sick

Treatments Your Doctor Might Recommend if You're Sick

Available COVID-19 Treatment Options

Monoclonal Antibodies for High-Risk COVID-19 Positive Patients

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Amy Bernard, MS, BSN, RN-BC, CHCP

Director, Accreditation and Compliance, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Amy Bernard, MS, BSN, RN-BC, CHCP, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Senior Scientific Content Manager, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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