The latest drug in the COVID-19 fight is now in trial at Houston Methodist, as respiratory specialists look at antibody treatments that could interfere with the ability of the virus to infect cells.
Bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody cocktail similar to the one President Donald Trump received when he was treated for COVID-19 in October, is an experimental therapy that can prevent mild infections from getting worse, said Dr. Howard Huang, a pulmonologist leading the clinical trial.
More than 50 doses have been administered since Houston Methodist began trials Nov. 27. The hospital has received 316 doses from the federal government so far. First priority is being given to health care workers and people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, such as patients who are over 65 and/or have diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.
Thus far, researchers are administering the drug, manufactured by Eli Lilly, to patients who are showing mild to moderate symptoms and have just received a positive COVID-19 test. The hope, Huang said, is to catch patients before they get worse and are taken to the emergency room.
“The idea is to reduce the need for subsequent medical treatment,” he said.
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The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the antibody treatments Nov. 9 and has purchased nearly 1 million doses to send to counties hard hit by COVID-19. When a patient is given the drug, they spend an hour receiving the antibodies from an intravenous drip. Afterward, researchers take their vital signs and monitor for adverse reactions before sending them home.
Retired nurse Sandy Zeluff was among the first to receive the treatment the day after Thanksgiving. Zeluff, 69, knew something was wrong when the Monday before Thanksgiving, her head throbbed with searing pain and muscle aches set in all over her body.
The day before Thanksgiving, a lab test at Houston Methodist confirmed that she had been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. And she was anxious she’d join the 9,000 people currently hospitalized in Texas with the virus.
Her husband, who tested negative, started emailing the doctors at Houston Methodist to ask about treatment options. Just hours after her COVID-19 diagnosis, the hospital slotted her in as one of the first patients in an antibody infusion trial.
“I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to get it,” Zeluff said.
On Saturday, the night after the infusion, her aches and pains disappeared.
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“I am convinced that the infusion prevented hospitalization,” she said. Zeluff, whose only lingering symptom is fatigue, hopes to get back to her daily walks around Rice University as her sickness subsides.
Eli Lilly, based in Indianapolis, said the drug will be free to patients, although hospitals can charge for administering the treatment.
At Houston Methodist, the cost for the infusion time, other supplies and additional medications will run about $1,000 and may be covered by insurance or Medicare.
Doctors have thrown drug after drug at the new coronavirus since it exploded worldwide this year. Texas has received 16,000 doses of bamlanivimab. Early in the pandemic, Houston researchers experimented with remdesivir, an antiviral drug, to try to reduce oxygen support. More than 1,300 patients in the Houston area are taking place in a convalescent plasma trial, in which plasma from people who have recovered is infused into hospitalized patients.
U.S. officials are still determining who will be the first to receive COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, which are nearing federal approval for emergency use.
In Texas, more than 1.2 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 22,000 have died. If successful, the new antibody cocktail could stem the flow of patients coming into the Texas Medical Center’s hospitals, which Huang said are starting to see a surge of infections after Thanksgiving.
Most of the 50-plus patients who have gotten the bamlanivimab infusion have seen a significant decrease in the severity of symptoms, Huang said.
“We’re tilting the balance in their favor in terms of being able to eliminate the virus from their system,” Huang said.