U.S. hospitals try 'MAb squads,' infusion sites to boost use of COVID-19 antibody drugs

(Reuters) - U.S. hospitals have been slow to embrace COVID-19 antibody drugs from Eli Lilly and Co and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc that have been authorized to reduce the risk of hospitalization, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

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Demand for the therapies, which are given as a one-time intravenous infusion, has been “disappointing,” and hospitals should be using them more, Operation Warp Speed chief advisor Dr. Moncef Slaoui said on a conference call. The government program is distributing and allocating the drugs.

Healthcare systems say they have been slow to ramp up use of the antibodies due to extra levels of complexity during the pandemic - including requirements for quick diagnosis times and the need to isolate infectious patients.

Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare said it has trained a special team, known as “the MAb Squad,” who contact high-risk patients as soon as their test results are positive to connect them with treatment at infusion centers across the state.

Lilly’s bamlanivimab and Regeneron’s combination of casirivimab and imdevimab are monoclonal antibodies, known as MAbs in medical shorthand, manufactured copies of proteins produced by the body to fight coronavirus infection.

Both treatments have U.S. emergency use authorization for newly-diagnosed, non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients at risk of becoming severely ill due to age or underlying health conditions.

The Regeneron cocktail was among the medicines used to treat U.S. President Donald Trump when he contracted COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has so far delivered over 250,000 doses of the drugs to states and territories. The latest weekly statistics from HHS show that only 21% of delivered drug was used to treat patients, Michael Ganio, senior director of pharmacy practice and quality at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, told Reuters.

He said that number is rising as hospitals open dedicated infusion centers - some in conference rooms and auditoriums. HHS plans to set up a website where a user can type in a zip code and find a nearby site able to administer an infusion.

“We are using quite a bit. We’ve treated over 300 patients so far with bamlanivimab,” said Katherine Perez, infectious disease pharmacist at Houston Methodist.

Perez said Houston Methodist is mainly using bamlanivimab as Regeneron’s drug is still being distributed using material from clinical trials, requiring pharmacies to mix several vials.

“Sometimes it takes eight vials to get one dose,” she said.

Despite emergency use authorizations for both antibody drugs, the National Institutes of Health and the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend against their routine use, saying that the benefits are uncertain.

Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious disease physician at Intermountain, said the health system is working with researchers to gather real-world data on how well the drugs appear to be working.

Slaoui said the U.S. is still discussing procuring additional antibody doses from both Lilly and Regeneron.

The U.S. has so far paid $1,250 per dose for 950,000 doses of Lilly’s bamlanivimab and purchased 300,000 doses of Regeneron’s antibody cocktail.

Reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Aurora Ellis