Written for Daily Hive by Dr. Carl Hansen, the co-founder and CEO of AbCellera, a Vancouver-based technology company that discovered the first monoclonal antibody therapy authorized in North America to treat COVID-19.
Earlier this month, a colleague and friend of mine contracted COVID-19 while being treated in the hospital for a serious chronic condition. He soon developed COVID-19 symptoms – a frightening reality faced by many of the thousands of Canadians who test positive every day and are at high risk of complications.
The prospect of fighting two potentially life-threatening conditions at the same time was daunting.
The difference in this case was that he knew about an effective treatment for COVID-19 that can help prevent serious illness and death. He also knew that this treatment, known as antibody therapy, has to be administered early.
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That’s why he wasted no time in asking his primary care doctor for the therapy, which both he and the physician knew had been authorized by Health Canada, purchased by the federal government, and was available.
His request was denied, but he did not take no for an answer, insisting on a second opinion. Early that evening, he received the antibody treatment. His COVID-19-related symptoms subsided one day later, and he was on the road to recovery.
This patient was the first to receive the therapy in BC, but this shouldn’t have been the case. It shouldn’t be this hard to get an authorized treatment.
Health Canada granted bamlanivimab interim authorization as a COVID-19 treatment on November 20, 2020, and the federal government purchased up to 26,000 doses in December. It has been administered to very few Canadians because no province has recommended use of COVID-19 antibody therapy as a standard of care.
This runs contrary to the recommendations made by the world’s foremost regulatory bodies.
Since November, bamlanivimab has been authorized in more than 15 countries around the world, including the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, and Israel.
Just last week, the European Medicines Agency issued a positive recommendation for its use. In the U.S. alone, more than 360,000 patients have been treated with bamlanivimab, with millions of additional doses being distributed to 3,000-plus treatment centers.
Now let’s be clear about the ethical implications of this situation.
Since bamlanivimab was purchased by the Canadian government in December, it is estimated that more than 448,000 Canadians have been infected with COVID-19 and over 9,000 have died. For patients who have been hospitalized and recovered, many are dealing with long-term health problems.
Meanwhile, we have had an effective antibody therapy sitting on the shelf.
There is broad scientific consensus that antibody therapies are critical tools for managing COVID-19, and that these treatments need to get to patients as soon as possible.
Dr. David Kessler, the new U.S. COVID-19 Chief Scientific Officer, recently stressed the importance of high-risk patients getting antibody therapy as soon as possible.
He informed the public that clinical studies have proven that early treatment saves lives and greatly reduces the chance of hospitalization.
Positive recommendations have similarly been made by Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the FDA, and by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S.
Bamlanivimab, as a single antibody therapy and together with a second antibody called etesevimab, has been evaluated in a number of clinical trials, where more than 5,000 patients have received the treatment.
These studies have shown that antibody therapies are an effective and extremely safe treatment that can reduce hospitalizations and deaths by up to 87 percent. Most importantly, across all patients treated with antibody therapy in these clinical trials, there has not been a single COVID-19-related death.
By comparison, there have been 18 COVID-19-related deaths among patients treated with the placebo. The importance of this must be stressed: eighteen deaths to zero deaths. Treatment with bamlanivimab can save lives.
Bamlanivimab was discovered in Vancouver by AbCellera and developed for clinical use in collaboration with Eli Lilly in record time.
We were able to condense the drug discovery and development process from years to months, because of preparation, technological advancements, round-the-clock work, and close collaboration among all involved.
For anyone working in the field of biotechnology, this is what we strive for: delivering new therapies that help people, combining science and technology to relieve suffering, and, ultimately, saving lives.
However, this pride is tempered by the knowledge that so many more Canadian patients could and can benefit from antibody therapy if only they could access it.
It shouldn’t be this way. When people get sick, they should have access to the best therapies. Antibody treatments for COVID-19 are here in Canada, can save lives, and they need to be used now.