COVID-19 Patients Avoid Hospitalization Using Cancer Treatment Drugs
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the wide range of potential side effects and unpredictable levels of severity have been constant fears for healthcare providers. For people with underlying health conditions (also called chronic medical disorders) like cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart or lung disease, covid symptoms can be severe enough to require hospitalization and, for some patients, ventilator support. To prevent light to moderate symptoms from getting worse, doctors are now prescribing a new type of cancer treatment drug known as monoclonal antibodies (mAb).
According to nationwide data, 80% to 90% of patients who receive monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 avoid hospitalization.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three mAB treatments under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for patients 12 years or older with a mild to moderate covid infection. Additionally, these patients must be at risk for developing more severe (and possibly fatal) symptoms of the virus – typically people aged 65 or over and anyone with underlying health conditions.
The treatments given EUA approval include:
- Bamlanivimab alone
- Bamlanivimab plus etesevimab
- Casirivimab plus imdevimab (REGEN-COV®)
What Are Monoclonal Antibodies?
Monoclonal antibodies are a type of targeted therapy, typically used to treat cancers that no longer respond to standard treatments (like chemotherapy). The drugs are designed to target specific areas on a virus (usually, proteins on the surface) to help the immune system identify and block invaders. Typically, monoclonal antibodies to treat covid are given as a single intravenous infusion followed by an hour of observation.
You may have heard of pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) or nivolumab (Opdivo®) – mAb treatments commonly used to improve prognoses among patients with certain types of cancer. Similarly, the COVID-19 treatments above developed by pharmaceutical companies Regeneron and Eli Lilly give patients a dose of enhanced antibodies capable of protecting even the immunocompromised from developing more severe covid symptoms.
Vaccines for the SARS-CoV-2 virus differ from mAb coronavirus treatments in their effect on the immune system. Currently, the vaccine requires two shots administered over weeks to prevent infection. Conversely, mAb treatment is delivered in one dose to people who are already infected and need additional immune protection.
Covid Treatments Using Monoclonal Antibodies
According to the National Institutes of Health, over 900,000 monoclonal antibody infusions have been dispensed to 5,000 facilities in the U.S. to treat coronavirus. The average cost for one round of the mAb drugs used in covid treatment is between $2,000 and $2,500. However, the government has purchased over one million doses of treatment to distribute for free to high-risk patients.
To get monoclonal antibody therapy you must:
- Test positive for COVID-19 in the past 10 days
- Obtain a referral for mAb treatment from a doctor
- Find an infusion location near you
For current mAb treatments to be effective against COVID-19, they need to be administered as soon as possible within 10 days of the first symptoms.
The entire procedure lasts between two to three hours. Generally, the process begins with a health screening of the patient’s vitals followed by an IV infusion of the medication over an hour. During this time, the patient will remain isolated to reduce exposing others to the virus. Afterward, the patient will sit for an hour of observation to ensure there are no allergic reactions.
What If I’m Not Eligible for Monoclonal Antibody Treatment?
Though the therapy has proven beneficial to many patients, a mAb infusion may not be right for everyone with covid. Patients with severe symptoms or certain underlying conditions may be disqualified from receiving mAb therapy. For hospitalized patients with the virus, treatment may include:
- Convalescent plasma
Volunteering for a clinical trial may also offer relief from the long-haul effects of covid or protection from it. The Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) trials are a combination of federal, university, and commercial medical researchers with the goal of understanding and treating the infection. The trials are located across the country and are open to adults who:
- Have been hospitalized with covid
- Have been discharged from a covid hospitalization
- Tested positive for covid but aren’t hospitalized
- Were exposed to covid but did not develop an infection