VIB achieves important milestone in the development of a COVID-19 drug

Earlier this year, the lab of Xavier Saelens (VIB-UGent) announced the discovery of a unique antibody that is capable of binding the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). The antibody was developed in collaboration with two research groups in the US. The team has now established that the antibody can neutralize a lab variant of the virus, an important step forward in the development of a potential antiviral drug against the new coronavirus. This progress was made possible thanks to the intensive efforts of various teams in the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology.

An antibody against COVID-19
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the team of professor Xavier Saelens has been working relentlessly on a potential treatment for the viral infection. Earlier work of the scientists identified an antibody that binds an important part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Today, the lab announces new findings, in cooperation with the labs of Jason McLellan (University of Texas at Austin, US) and Markus Hoffmann and Stefan Pöhlmann (German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, Göttingen, Germany). These findings show that the antibody can neutralize the virus. This is an important step forward in the pursuit of an antiviral drug against the new coronavirus.

En route to protection
The new results provide the first evidence that the antibody could prevent the new coronavirus from infecting human cells. Importantly, the antibody can also be produced at large-scale using production processes that are common in the biopharmaceutical industry.

Prof. Saelens emphasizes: “This important step forward in the fight against COVID-19 is the result of great teamwork by members of my lab and professor Nico Callewaert’s research group (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology).”

Dr. Bert Schepens, staff scientist in the team of Prof. Saelens: “Good teamwork is crucial. We can count on the expertise in the research center, colleagues from VIB Discovery Sciences and the VIB Innovation & Business team. We will continue these collaborations, also with academic experts outside VIB. The moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments really felt like a collective victory.”

In contrast to vaccines, an antibody offers immediate protection – though of shorter duration. The advantage of this approach over vaccines is that patients don’t need to produce their own antibodies. The most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, often mount a modest response to vaccines, which means that their protection may be incomplete. Healthcare workers or people at increased risk of exposure to the virus can also benefit from an immediate protection. This type of medicine can therefore be an important tool in fighting the current pandemic.

The next steps
It remains important to note that confirmation of these results using the pathogenic coronavirus strain is needed – experiments which are currently ongoing. The VIB researchers are also preparing the preclinical test phase for a coronavirus treatment. Although these first results are highly promising, further research is necessary to confirm the full potential of this antibody-based drug directed against COVID-19.


Xavier Saelens (VIB-Ghent University)
Mobile: +32 468 26 57 46
Tel.: +32 9 331 36 20

Bert Schepens (VIB- Ghent University)
Tel.: +32 9 331 36 24
Mobile: +32 495 40 26 21

Elisabeth Stes  (Expert External Relations at VIB)
Mobile: +32 486 82 59 02
Tel.: +32 9 244 66 11

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VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology
Research at the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology can lead to more effective medicine. If we know the causes and mechanisms of a disease, we can then deal with it in a better way. This is much more efficient than treating the symptoms, which is how things are often done at the moment. The research helps to prevent, diagnose or treat diseases.

Basic research in life sciences is VIB’s raison d’être. VIB is an independent research institute where some 1,500 top scientists from Belgium and abroad conduct pioneering basic research. As such, they are pushing the boundaries of what we know about molecular mechanisms and how they rule living organisms such as human beings, animals, plants and microorganisms. Based on a close partnership with five Flemish universities – Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Hasselt University – and supported by a solid funding program, VIB unites the expertise of all its collaborators and research groups in a single institute. VIB’s technology transfer activities translate research results into concrete benefits for society such as new diagnostics and therapies and agricultural innovations. These applications are often developed by young start-ups from VIB or through collaborations with other companies. This also leads to additional employment and bridges the gap between scientific research and entrepreneurship. VIB also engages actively in the public debate on biotechnology by developing and disseminating a wide range of science-based information. More info can be found on

Ghent University
Ghent University is one of the major universities in the Dutch-speaking region of Europe. It distinguishes itself as a socially committed and pluralistic university in a broad international perspective. About 80 faculty departments, spread over 11 faculties, offer high-quality courses in every one of their scientific disciplines. Next to this, Ghent University strategically invests in multidisciplinary clusters to expand its industrial R&D network. Key technology transfer activities include industrial collaboration programs, IP licensing and spin-off creation. Over the past ten years, this joint effort has resulted in more than 430 granted patents, the establishment of 68 spin-off companies and an intensive collaboration with companies. 

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