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A New COVID-19 Treatment Is Coming, But There's A Catch


A new drug to treat COVID patients will finally become available next week. It can be used on people who are infected but not sick enough to be in a hospital. But medication is in short supply, and it has to be administered by IV, a significant complication. We're joined now by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Good morning, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: Please tell us about this drug.

HARRIS: Well, it's called a monoclonal antibody. It's a synthetic antibody. You know, it's similar to what your body produces in response to an infection. And it attaches to the coronavirus. So the idea is to block it so it can't invade your cells. Now, this particular drug is made by Eli Lilly. But, Scott, you may remember that President Trump got a similar drug when he got sick. That one was made by Regeneron. And it's still being reviewed by the FDA.

I should say there is a very limited supply of this drug. And, of course, we are in the midst of a surge in new cases. So the demand has never been higher.

SIMON: How will the scarce supply be given out?

HARRIS: Well, the federal government bought up the current supply at the cost of $1,250 per dose. And it has figured out how to distribute it to states based on relative need. And the states, in turn, have directed those supplies to hospitals. I talked to Erin Fox, a pharmacist at the University of Utah Health, who is part of a committee that developed criteria for who would qualify for it in her state.

ERIN FOX: We're looking at only being able to treat maybe 1 to 2% of the positive patients who would fit those criteria. It's just a really small number.

SIMON: So, Richard, what are they going to do - draw lots, rock, paper, scissors?

HARRIS: (Laughter) Right. Well, the last time there was a COVID drug in very short supply, Fox said, who got it was pretty much luck of the draw. But this time they're trying to be more selective. The drug is intended mostly for people over 65 or those with underlying health issues. But, you know, even limiting it to that group still leaves a huge shortage. So Fox says doctors are trying to figure out who would most likely end up in the hospital if they didn't get the drug.

FOX: Trying to prevent those admissions is really, really important for us as we face this huge surge coming at us as well.

HARRIS: And I asked her what other criteria she could add to identify people who are most likely to end up in the hospital.

FOX: I think the other criteria - and this is backed up by the CDC data - are non-white race or Hispanic as well.

HARRIS: Yeah, because the CDC says about half of all people in this country who end up in the hospital and, in fact, who die of COVID-19, are people of color. Fox says she and her colleagues really also want to make sure that people who need it most are not put at a disadvantage.

SIMON: How effective is the drug?

HARRIS: Well, here's the thing, Scott. The vast majority of people who get infected fight the virus off without help from a drug. So if you give it to, like, 100 people, you might prevent seven hospitalizations. And even though the drug itself is free, infusions cost a lot of money. Many Medicare patients will face a $60 copay. Private insurance companies will each have their own plans for who's going to have to pay and how much.

SIMON: And where would you go to even get an infusion?

FOX: Well, many hospitals are setting up separate infusions sites because they don't want their emergency rooms overrun with people who are sick with COVID-19 since they're already overrun. But for example, here in Washington, D.C., the MedStar hospitals have converted a facility at one hospital for this specific use. They've instituted extra infection control precautions because remember; these patients all have active cases of COVID-19. I spoke to Dr. Princy Kumar, who is an infectious disease doc at MedStar.

PRINCY KUMAR: When a patient arrives, we will actually escort the patient up to the dedicated infusion center. And once the infusion is done, we will actually re-escort the patient back so the patient doesn't wander accidentally around the hospital. So even simple logistics like that needed to be worked out.

HARRIS: And, Scott, you know, everyone is bracing for bumps in the road as this kind of treatment rolls out nationwide. But at the same time, doctors are grateful to have something else that's potentially helpful as we all wait for a vaccine to become available hopefully by the end of December or not too long thereafter.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks so much for being with us.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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