VANCOUVER -- A Vancouver biotech company working on a treatment for COVID-19 has announced human testing for its antibody drug could start as soon as July.

Vancouver-based AbCellera managed to isolate around 500 antibodies that are candidates for new therapeutics to treat or prevent infections.

AbCellera’s CEO Carl Hansen said the antibodies were narrowed-down from five million different immune cells that were identified in a single blood sample from one of the first COVID-19 patients in North America.

The company, which began in 2012 out of a lab at the University of British Columbia, combines technologies from artificial intelligence and miniaturization, which Hansen described as “like a shrink gun for modern biology.”

“Within a day, we can test and evaluate the properties of those antibodies, pull out the cells and then read the genetic code that tells us how to go and make them in the lab,” Hansen said.

On March 23, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau announced AbCellera would be among several Canadian companies receiving $192 million in federal funding for vaccine and treatment research.

“We know how to do this,” said Hansen, who revealed the company and its partner, U.S.-based Eli Lilly, are aiming to have the first antibody drug candidate testing in humans by July, a process that would normally take 7 to 8 years longer.

Antibody therapy is quicker than the vaccine process, Hansen said, because instead of using a dead virus to trigger the body to produce antibodies, the antibody is delivered right to a patient.

“It’s a therapy that skips over the vaccine process altogether,” he said. “It’s a precision medicine that will work for everyone and works more quickly.”

While the process is quicker than normal drug development, it still takes time to for research, testing and eventual manufacturing.

Until then, Hansen said continued physical distancing and the important work of front-line workers is giving researchers the time they need to develop effective treatments.

“It’s absolutely the case that there is hope,” he said.