The government is recruiting COVID-19 patients to test a promising treatment for the coronavirus — antibodies made in a lab — as President Trump pushes to reduce the fatality rate among cases that are cropping up across America.
People who get sick create neutralizing proteins to attack specific viruses or other pathogens, so a Canadian company partnered with the National Institutes of Health to isolate an antibody for the coronavirus from an early patient in Washington state.
Eli Lilly and Co., of Indiana, synthesized copies of it in a lab, creating what are known as monoclonal antibodies that target a specific part of the spike protein of the coronavirus. Now, NIH says it needs volunteers for phase two and three trials of the treatment to see if the monoclonal antibodies reduce the severity of COVID-19 or can save lives.
“The fundamental strategy of this is to interfere with the virus’s ability to infect,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters Tuesday.
NIH is seeking outpatient volunteers and hospitalized persons for the separate trials, which will enroll 2,000 people overall.
Scientists think they can gather usable data by October, as Eli Lilly pushes to produce 100,000 doses by the end of the year. Other companies would likely add their muscle if the monoclonal antibodies prove effective, though it is an intensive process requiring plenty of manufacturing power.
“The amount of capacity needed for this is probably unprecedented in our industry,” said Dan Skovronsky, the chief scientific officer at Eli Lilly.
It is the latest arrow in the quiver of therapies being used against the coronavirus, which has upended normal life since March and killed more than 155,000 people in the U.S.
Mr. Trump is eagerly promoting drugs and treatments for the disease as efforts to restrict social behavior fall short, leading to flare-ups of infection and economic woe.
The U.S. is distributing remdesivir, an antiviral from Gilead Sciences that has been shown to speed up recovery time for patients. And it is deploying dexamethasone, a steroid that British researchers found to be effective in saving the lives of severely ill patients requiring oxygen or a ventilator.
The administration is also pleading with COVID-19 survivors to donate their antibody-rich blood plasma, which can be used to help patients fight off the disease.
Mr. Trump last week visited the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington to cheer on a coronavirus survivor as he donated.
The coronavirus discovered in Wuhan, China, in December is a pesky enemy, so nations are doing what they can to control it as they wait for a vaccine.
European nations that appeared to beat down transmission in the spring are reporting flare-ups. Likewise, states that wrangled the virus early on are seeing an uptick in transmission, even as the Sun Belt surge plateaus.
Government officials have noted that positivity rates in Mississippi and several Midwest states are climbing too fast, meaning they could be the next to see difficult flare-ups.
“We must ensure that these states do not become new flare-ups,” Mr. Trump said.
Democrats blasted Mr. Trump on Tuesday for saying the American outbreak is “under control” and the massive death toll “is what it is” in an interview with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan that aired late Monday on HBO.
Mr. Trump said the U.S. death rate isn’t as bad if you take out New York, which was hit hard early on and has suffered nearly 33,000 deaths.
“It’s just a very tough place, people are very close together,” he said.
New York City health commissioner Oxiris Barbot resigned Tuesday over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the outbreak. She said “the Health Department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been” in a resignation letter obtained by The New York Times.
The White House argues the range of available therapies explains why the U.S. has a relatively low case-fatality rate — the percentage of people who test positive and then die — compared to other developed countries.
“We have secured more than half a million courses of treatment of remdesivir — that is one of the several therapeutics that this president has achieved in finding for the American people to treat this novel disease, this novel virus,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Monoclonal antibodies were developed in 1975 and have been used against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases. They are useful because they can bind to a specific part of a pathogen.
Eli Lilly said it was able to manufacture the monoclonal antibodies within two and a half months — a timeline that Dr. Skovronsky called “nothing short of unprecedented” — after AbCellera Biologics of Vancouver and NIH identified the antibody in a recovered patient in early March.
NIH said it may use the roster of volunteers it is gathering to try other therapies, too.
“The main thrust is the monoclonal antibody strategies,” NIH Director Francis Collins said. “We are thrilled to have reached this point in record time.”