Eli Lilly CEO Dave Ricks still confident in Covid antibody treatment

Kevin Stankiewicz

Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO Dave Ricks told CNBC on Tuesday that he believes the company's coronavirus antibody treatment will still be beneficial to Covid-19 patients, despite the recent end to a study of the drug in a hospital setting.

The government-run clinical trial that was stopped looked at whether the antibody treatment helped people who are hospitalized with the coronavirus. In a statement Monday, Eli Lilly said that data so far from the study indicated the drug was "unlikely" to help patients recover from the advanced stage of the disease.

"These are patients who had symptoms many, many days ago. They advanced in the hospital. Many were on supplemental oxygen," Ricks said on "Squawk Box." "It's disappointing, of course. We would have liked to have shown a benefit in the hospital. It doesn't appear that that benefit is there, so this chapter of that study will close."

Other studies involving Eli Lilly's antibody treatment are continuing to move forward, including another one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that involves recently diagnosed Covid-19 patients who have mild to moderate cases of the disease. Lilly also is running a trial to see if the antibody treatment is effective on a preventative basis for residents and staff at nursing homes.

Earlier this month, Eli Lilly submitted an emergency use application to regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its single antibody treatment, specifically for it to be used on mild-to-moderate Covid-19 patients who are at higher risk of death, such as those above age 65. The pharmaceutical company also said it hopes to submit an emergency use application in November for its combination treatment that uses two antibodies.

The company has so far seen "strong results" from the antibody studies that involve patients who are earlier in their Covid-19 diagnoses, Ricks said. "Catching the disease early, where you can reduce the viral load with an antibody, appears to be making a significant difference."

Eli Lilly is among a handful of other companies developing coronavirus antibody drugs, which experts have viewed as a promising potential Covid-19 treatment. The goal of this class of drugs is to boost the immune system's defenses and prevent the virus from infecting human cells.

President Donald Trump received an antibody cocktail from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 in early October. Regeneron also has filed for emergency use authorization with the FDA.

Ricks said that Covid-19 has proved to be a "two-phase disease," which can help explain why the antibody treatment doesn't appear to provide a benefit to hospitalized patients.

"You have the initial phase, which is characterized by significant viral replication and the effects of that on your body causing symptoms.," he said. "Then the second phase where, unfortunately, people develop their own immune storm, which causes organs to shut down and you end up in the hospital."

By the time a patient ends up in the hospital, Ricks said, there may "not be enough viral load left to reduce" with an antibody treatment. "Instead, we might want to use anti-inflammatory drugs like steroids or our own Olumiant, which has proven [effective] in this setting," he said. Olumiant is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic inflammatory disorder.

Shares of Eli Lilly were down more than 5% in morning trading Tuesday as investors digested both the end of the hospital study and the company's quarterly results. Adjusted per-share earnings of $1.54 missed Wall Street expectations by 17 cents, while revenue of $5.74 billion also fell short of estimates.

Eli Lilly saw weakness in its diabetes drug Trulicity, driven by higher-than-expected rebate filings and more sales into Medicaid, according to Ricks. He noted the company's $125 million in spending on accelerating coronavirus treatments also weighed on earnings. "That was never in our guidance," he said.


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