Two new antibody treatments have shown promise in keeping high-risk patients with Covid-19 out of the hospital.
But despite receiving an advertising boost from President Trump, who received Regeneron treatment in October and praised it as a “cure”, the drugs have not been widely used since they were authorized for emergency use last month by Food and Drug Administration.
Now, federal and state health officials are asking patients and doctors to seek treatments.
Here’s what you need to know.
What are monoclonal antibodies?
The two treatments, by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, are the first drugs developed specifically for Covid- to be authorized by the FDA. They consist of artificially synthesized copies of the antibodies that people naturally produce when their immune system fights infections. Eli Lilly’s drug consists of an antibody. Regeneron’s is a cocktail of two.
The first data showed that they can prevent hospitalization in people at high risk of serious complications of the disease. Clinical trials continue. Treatments are believed to work, helping to stop the virus soon after infection.
Who do treatments help?
Treatments can be administered to anyone with a positive coronavirus test, at high risk of developing a severe form of the disease and within 10 days of developing the first symptoms.
This includes people at least 65 years old and those who are obese or have health problems like diabetes.
Treatments are not allowed for people who have already been hospitalized, or who need oxygen, because studies in these groups have not shown that the drugs work well.
How much they cost?
Under the agreements that each company closed with the federal government, the doses will be free, although some patients, depending on their insurance coverage, may have to pay for the administration of the drug, which must be administered by a health provider.
Are these treatments widely available?
Treatments with monoclonal antibodies are difficult and time-consuming to manufacture, which has limited the number of doses that drug manufacturers have produced.
The federal government bought 950,000 doses from Eli Lilly and 300,000 doses from Regeneron. Pharmaceutical companies have already delivered hundreds of thousands of these doses, with the remainder due in late January.
How many people received the treatments?
Nobody knows, but many of the doses distributed so far have not been used and are kept in the hospital’s refrigerators.
Although the federal government has nearly 532,000 doses of the two drugs in hand and almost 291,000 doses have been shipped, neither the government nor the pharmaceutical companies have complete data on how many of these doses were administered to patients.
The subset of hospitals that report data to the government on the number of doses administered used only 20 percent of their supply, on average, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Why are only a few patients receiving them?
Drugs are being used unevenly across the country. Some hospitals do not get enough doses. Others have not even used much of what they have achieved so far.
Several factors contributed to the underutilization: Hospitals are overburdened by the increase in the virus and concentrated on giving the first vaccines. And they must find space in their crowded facilities, where treatments can be administered over a period of hours without spreading the virus to others.
Some patients have been reluctant to venture out for treatments, either because they have no desire to go to a clinic while feeling ill, do not have transportation, or realize that medicines are only available to well-connected people. And the scarcity of treatments itself is contributing to their underutilization, as some hospitals retain supplies for fear of running out.
How can I get them?
There is no hotline or single website to help patients find a provider that offers treatments.
Many health systems have established ways to identify and contact eligible patients tested positive for coronavirus at testing sites or doctor’s offices. But these referral systems vary from community to community.
Eli Lilly’s hotline for your treatment is 1-855-545-5921. A spokeswoman for Regeneron recommended that patients or doctors contact the state health department.
Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, chief scientific officer at Eli Lilly, said he advises friends and family to call the company’s hotline. “If you are persistent and qualify, you will make it,” he said.