U.S. well being officers are urging hospitals to offer unused Covid antibody medicine

The U.S. has shipped over half a million doses of antibody treatments that have the potential to keep high-risk Covid patients out of hospitals if given early enough in their infection.

This would help already congested hospitals avoid additional stress, but the drugs are still underutilized despite their promising results, Trump administration health officials said Thursday. That’s because many patients don’t know how to access it, and hospitals don’t prescribe the medication or set up the infusion sites needed to administer the medication, they said.

“I want my colleagues to hear me,” said US surgeon general Dr. Jerome Adams told reporters. “You need to think about and be ready to prescribe these drugs much more often to protect your patients, maintain your hospital capacity, and support your exhausted colleagues.”

The Food and Drug Administration issued emergency approvals for antibody drugs to Eli Lilly and Regeneron in November. The latter’s drug was given to President Donald Trump, who said he felt better “instantly” when he was hospitalized with the coronavirus in October.

However, hospitals have listed a number of problems associated with prescribing the medication. The treatments have the greatest benefit when given to someone early in their infection. However, Covid test results can be delayed and people may not be treated until they are already showing symptoms, which makes antibody treatments less effective.

The medication are also difficult to administer. Hospitals need to assemble infusion centers with dedicated staff to distribute them. However, some patients may have difficulty reaching these locations, and getting the medication out in someone’s home is labor intensive. It can also take more than an hour to give people through IV infusions and requires an additional hour of monitoring afterward.

Despite the difficulties, it is still worth it for hospitals to build the infusion centers and prevent more people from getting seriously ill with the virus, said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. The treatments are helpful for people age 65 and over or for people with underlying health conditions, says the FDA.

“Some of these can be unusual places, not in hospitals, but in other places, for those high-risk people who are very likely to be hospitalized to get very sick, to go to intensive care and so on, infusing them with antibodies like that as early as possible in the illness, “Woodcock told reporters.

The US has redoubled its efforts to use the treatments. The Department of Health and Human Services on Monday introduced a “treatment location” that health care providers and patients can use to find potential locations for antibody treatment. As of Jan. 6, more than 641,000 doses of the treatment courses had been given, but 75% went unused, HHS said.

The federal government announced Tuesday that it had purchased more than 1.2 million additional treatment courses for the Regeneron drug to be offered in the first half of 2021. This means that almost 5 million courses with both antibodies are offered if required.

According to a CNBC analysis of the data from Johns Hopkins University, an average of 245,306 people test positive for Covid every day. According to data from the COVID Tracking Project carried out by journalists in the Atlantic, more than 130,300 people are hospitalized with Covid in a hospital in the US, twice as many since mid-November before the winter holiday season.

“We hope that the changes we make, better public awareness and better awareness of providers, lead to increased delivery of these antibodies,” said Woodcock.

Covid variants and effectiveness

Early studies have shown antibodies lower viral loads in patients, shorten symptoms, and most importantly, keep people out of the hospital, Woodcock said.

However, some medical experts are concerned that there isn’t enough evidence that the drugs are working. The Infectious Diseases Society of America, citing a lack of data, has advised against routine use of treatment by Eli Lilly. And the National Institutes of Health cited “insufficient data” saying the drug “should not be considered a standard of care”.

New and more infectious variants of the coronavirus, particularly a strain found in South Africa called 501Y.V2, may be more resistant to monoclonal antibody treatments, said White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Tuesday. Unlike vaccines, which trigger an immune response that attacks different parts of the virus, monoclonal antibodies target a very specific component, Fauci told California Governor Gavin Newsom in late December.

Woodcock said ongoing studies should give a better picture of how effective the drugs are, but there is also “real” evidence from health systems that the antibodies have found the antibodies helpful. She added that researchers are “actively looking” to see if the new Covid mutations will affect treatments.

“It’s possible that any variant, at some point a variant, will escape neutralization by one of these antibodies,” said Woodcock. “That is why we also aim for combinations or so-called cocktails of monoclonals, because it is much less likely that a certain variant will escape both at the same time.”

– CNBC’s Will Feuer contributed to this report.

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