Two new antibody treatments have shown promise in keeping high-risk Covid-19 patients out of the hospital.
But despite getting a publicity boost from President Trump, who received the Regeneron treatment in October and praised it as a “cure,” the drugs have not been widely used since being authorized for emergency use last month by the Food and Drug Administration.
Now, federal and state health officials are urging patients and doctors to seek out the 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 F.D.A. They consist of artificially synthesized copies of the antibodies that people produce naturally when their immune system fights off infection. Eli Lilly’s drug consists of one antibody. Regeneron’s is a cocktail of two.
Early data have shown they may prevent hospitalization in people at high risk for severe complications from the disease. Clinical trials are continuing. The treatments are believed to work by helping to shut down the virus soon after infection.
Who do the treatments help?
The treatments can be given to anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, is at high risk of developing a severe form of the disease, and is within 10 days of first developing symptoms.
This includes people who are at least 65 years of age and those who are obese or have medical conditions like diabetes.
The treatments are not authorized 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 do they cost?
Under deals that each company struck with the federal government, the doses will be free of charge, although some patients, depending on their insurance coverage, may have to pay for administering the drug, which must be infused by a health care provider.
Are these treatments widely available?
Monoclonal antibody treatments are difficult and time-consuming to manufacture, which has limited the number of doses the drug makers have produced.
The federal government has purchased 950,000 doses from Eli Lilly and 300,000 doses from Regeneron. The drug companies have already delivered hundreds of thousands of those doses, with the rest expected by the end of January.
How many people have received the treatments?
No one knows, but many of the doses distributed so far have gone unused and sit in hospital refrigerators.
While the federal government has on hand almost 532,000 doses of the two drugs, and nearly 291,000 doses have been shipped out, neither the government nor the drug companies have complete data on how many of those doses have been given to patients.
The subset of hospitals reporting data to the government on the number of administered doses has used only 20 percent of their supply, on average, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Why are only some patients getting them?
The drugs are being used unevenly across the country. Some hospitals can’t get enough doses. Others haven’t even used much of what they’ve gotten so far.
Various factors have contributed to underutilization: Hospitals are overwhelmed by the virus surge and focused on giving the first vaccines. And they must find space in their crowded facilities where the treatments can be infused over a period of hours without spreading the virus to others.
Some patients have been reluctant to venture out for the treatments, whether because they’re not up to going into a clinic while they’re feeling sick, they don’t have transportation, or they perceive the drugs as being available only for well-connected people. And the very scarcity of the treatments is contributing to their underuse, as some hospitals hold back supplies for fear of running out.
How can I get them?
There is no single hotline or website to help patients find a provider offering the treatments.
Many health systems have set up ways to identify and contact eligible patients who test positive for the coronavirus at testing sites or doctor’s offices. But these referral systems vary from community to community.
Eli Lilly’s support hotline for its treatment is 1-855-545-5921. A spokeswoman for Regeneron recommended that patients or doctors reach out to their state health department.
Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Eli Lilly’s chief scientific officer, said he advises friends and family members to call the company’s hotline. “If you’re persistent and you qualify, you’ll get it,” he said.