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Tampa Bay area doctors on the forefront of antibody research and lifesaving drugs to fight COVID-19

Posted at 6:23 PM, Sep 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-28 18:23:03-04

TAMPA, Fla. — What researchers are learning about COVID-19 is growing by the day. ABC Action News has learned doctors right here in the Tampa Bay area are making amazing discoveries about how to stop the virus, including antibody testing and new uses for life-saving drugs.

Jessica Kelley was one of the first dozen people in Hillsborough County to be diagnosed with COVID-19. She remembers a burning in her hands and legs but was unaware at the time that her body was slowly being starved of oxygen.

"You kind of have this idea of suffocation as something that makes your eyes blurry and like this darkness surrounds you and like you know it's happening," Kelley said. "I didn't know I was suffocating."

It's been months since Kelley tested negative for the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, but she believes her fight is far from over.
"I still feel like there are days where just walking around the block is a struggle," she said.

Kelley is now working to get every test her insurance will approve to learn more about the longterm effects COVID-19 may have on her body.

This comes as medical researchers in the Tampa Bay area are fighting to find out everything they can about COVID-19.

"This is a particularly dangerous coronavirus," said Dr. Kami Kim, with the University of South Florida's Health Infectious Disease & International Medicine Department.

Kim and her team at USF Health are now at the forefront of antibody research.

An antibody is a protein the body makes to help defend itself from infections it has seen before. That's what you look for in a vaccine.

"If you make antibodies, you should, in theory, be immune," Kim said.

The research from Kim and her team, in partnership with Tampa General Hospital, shows most people who have had COVID-19 will make antibodies. They are publishing their research now.

But Kim said they also discovered that not all antibody tests are created equal.

"So those quick and easy lab tests that you do with a pinprick — they don't pick up everybody who had antibodies," Kim said.

Now, USF researchers are taking the next step and are working to find out which antibodies are the "good antibodies." In other words, the ones that will actually stop people from getting the virus again.

"I think the feeling is that most people make antibodies, and probably most of them will make some neutralizing antibodies," Kim said. "The question is, do they make enough? And how long do those good antibodies last?"

That research is ongoing.

At Baycare Health System, there are also innovative clinical trials happening right here in Tampa Bay area hospitals.

"The field of COVID research has just exploded,' said Dr. Paul Lewis, who serves as the program director of Family Medicine Residency for Baycare.

Lewis said one of the most impactful clinical trials he's been involved in has to do with Remdesivir.

Remdesivir is an injection used to treat severe COVID-19 infection in hospitalized patients. It helps stop the virus from spreading in the body. Before the FDA approved it, Lewis helped get the drug directly to COVID-19 positive patients through clinical trials.
"I think we may have saved lives by getting patients access to that medication," Lewis said.

Now, Baycare's research on the now-approved drug is morphing.

"We're looking more and more in other clinical trials to how you can use that potentially outside the hospital," Lewis said.

Doctors are now focusing on how Remdesivir and other treatments can be used earlier on in COVID-19 patients, as well as outside the hospital setting.

"What can we do when you first get sick or to prevent somebody from ending up in the hospital or in the ICU?" Lewis said.

Leading COVID-19 researchers say this is one of the many reasons why people who have had COVID-19 should participate in clinical trials.

"Time is of the essence here," said Rachel Karlnoski, Ph.D., who is with the USF Health Office of Clinical Research.

The USF Office of Clinical Research says you'll get top of the line medical monitoring throughout the trial as doctors test a particular drug.

"The purpose of these clinical trials is to determine: Are these drugs safe?" Karlnoski said. "Are they effective?

Researchers say by taking part in COVID-19 clinical trials, you will be helping find the best treatments for the virus, helping people for years to come.

"The faster we can enroll patients in these trials, the faster we know if these drugs are effective or not," Karlnoski said.

But in the meantime, thousands are still grappling with the devastating and deadly consequences of the virus.

Kelley's family is now grieving the loss of her grandparents, who died side by side in the same hospital room from complications due to COVID-19.

She is urging everyone to do what they can to try and stop the spread of the virus, namely, wearing a face mask.

"We've lost so many people," Kelley said. "This [mask] is our prevention."