Antibody drugs from Regeneron, Eli Lilly and others remained largely unused for months, but have now been adopted to fight the latest surge of COVID-19 brought on by the Indian ‘Delta’ variant in an effort to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Regeneron Pharmaceutical Inc, predicts that as early as June, less than five percent of high-risk patients were receiving treatment, chief executive Leonard Schlieffer told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.
However, in the last few weeks, that number has increased to 30 percent.
The drugs, which have proved to be effective at preventing hospitalizations, are given to patients free of charge.
The biotech company delivered more than 135,000 drug doses to nationwide healthcare providers just last week, nine times greater from mid-July, according to data shared by the company with The Journal.
The increase in demand is correlated with new waves in cases of the Covid Delta Variant, especially in southern states, where vaccination rates are relatively low, including Florida and Texas.
Doctors are increasingly turning to antibody drugs in a bid to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 patients. Pictured: A box and vial of the Regeneron monoclonal antibody is seen at a new COVID-19 treatment site in Florida
Until recently, Eli Lilly said that a revised agreement with the U.S. government for its COVID-19 antibody drug, bamlanivimab, was sold in combination with another therapy
Those two states in particular have dramatically increased its numbers of antibody-drug infusion centers and, in some cases, have allowed high-risk patients to receive treatment without the normally-required consultation from a doctor.
Last week, the Biden administration pledged it would work with state governments to increase access to these drugs, after agreeing to pay $2.63 billion for 1.25 million doses in January of this year.
That’s about $2,100 per dose of Regeneron’s drug. In July 2020, the U.S. paid $450 million for 300,000 doses.
The adoption of these drugs is also increasing due to greater public awareness and a looser grip on who can qualify for them under the FDA’s emergency-use authorizations.
Monoclonal antibodies are molecules produced in a lab that imitate the immune system’s antibodies that fight viruses and bacteria like the new Delta variant.
For the sickest patients, there aren’t many alternatives as effective as Regeneron’s drug, Vicki Brownewell, chief nursing officer at Houston Methodist West Hospital in Texas, told The Journal.
Antibody drugs, if quickly provided after infection, are a way to lower the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19, she said.
‘Once a patient is hospitalized with Covid there’s very little we can do except support them. There are no magic-bullet drugs that work,’ Brownewell told the newspaper.
The FDA authorized the first antibody drugs from Regeneron and Eli Lilly & Co.= in November 2020 for people whose health were likely to develop severe cases.
Former President Donald Trump credited Regeneron for coming up with the first drug last October, but most doctors were slow to use the treatments until now.
Texas has seen it’s number of COVID-19 cases rise since Independence Day celebrations on July 4
Florida’s number of COVID-19 cases also increased since the beginning of July
Some hospitals struggled with the supply of the drugs as it required patients to go to get infusions or a series of shots before being closely watched for an hour for possible allergic reactions.
Others have been hesitant at reassigning their strained employees from treating ill-health patients to providing drugs to patients with mild cases.
Regeneron’s Dr Schleifer said the drugs weren’t being given out due to a lack of support from public-health leaders, such as the National Institutes of Health, which didn’t recommend them until early this year.
‘Without the voice of the NIH endorsing these in a major way, the word just didn’t get out there,’ he said.
A representative for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the NIH, said the agency ‘has never downplayed the effectiveness of the available monoclonal-antibody COVID-19 treatments in any way.’
In June, the Department of Health and Human Services halted Eli Lilly’s supply of the drugs due to its weaker effectiveness against variants.
A Eli Lilly spokeswoman said the interruption is still in effect and that the company is developing a new antibody drug designed to fight most variants of the coronavirus.
Other pharmaceuticals, such as Vir Biotechnology Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, have released antibody drugs in May, which have been approved by the FDA.
However, the federal government has yet to purchase them.
Emergency room nurses tend to a patient in a hallway at the Houston Methodist hospital in Texas. COVID-19 anti-body drugs would help hospitals reduce the number of COVID-19 patients
A Glaxo spokeswoman told the Journal the drugs are commercially accessible in the E.U. but no deal has been struck for them to be sold in the U.S.
In May, the FDA revised its qualifications for patients who could be considered as high-risk for serious complications of Covid-19, growing the pool of patients doctors can prescribe the medicine to.
The new criteria significantly lowered the threshold for when someone is considered overweight enough to be at high risk. Race or ethnicity can also now be considered a high-risk factor.
As many as 75% of adults in the U.S. could qualify for treatment under the new criteria, said David Wohl, an infectious-diseases doctor at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
‘With the criteria expanded, we have so many more people now who are eligible at the same time we’re having a surge,’ he said.