Two million doses a year
Medical logistics companies have a lot of experience dealing with products like these and are well prepared to handle the new antibody drugs. “There are quite a few products like these on the market, and the supply chain is used to shipping them,” Ms. Crabtree says.
They will be shipped to distribution centers in refrigerated trucks, repacked into smaller lots that can sustain the correct temperature for 24 hours, and then sent to their final destination, often in something as simple as a Styrofoam cooler filled with dry ice.
The expected rise in demand shouldn’t be too much of an issue for distributors either, says Ms. Crabtree; they have built systems that can deal with short-term surges in volume. The annual flu vaccine, for example, involves shipping a lot of product in a very short time, usually from August to November. “The distribution system is used to seasonal variations and peaks in demand,” she says.
The next question is how the treatments will be administered. Although most patients who will receive monoclonal antibodies will be ambulatory and not hospitalized, the administration requires intravenous infusion. Hospitals, of course, have a lot of experience with intravenous drugs, but typically give them only to inpatients. Most other monoclonal antibody drugs – such as those for cancer and autoimmune disorders – are given in specialized suites in doctor’s offices or in stand-alone infusion clinics.
That means that the places best suited to treat COVID-19 patients with antibodies are those that regularly deal with people who are immunocompromised, and such patients should not be interacting with people who have an infectious disease. “How do we protect the staff and other patients?” Dr. Gandhi asks.
Protecting staff and other patients
This is not an insurmountable obstacle, he points out, but it is one that requires careful thought and planning to accommodate COVID-19 patients without unduly disrupting life-saving treatments for other patients. It might involve, for example, treating COVID-19 patients in sequestered parts of the clinic or at different times of day, with even greater attention paid to cleaning, he explains. “We now have many months of experience with infection control, so we know how to do this; it’s just a question of logistics.”
But even once all the details around manufacturing, transporting, and administering the drugs are sorted out, there is still the issue of how they will be distributed fairly and equitably.
Despite multiple companies working to produce an array of different antibody drugs, demand is still expected to exceed supply for many months. “With more than 200,000 new cases a day in the United States, there won’t be enough antibodies to treat all of the high-risk patients,” says Dr. Gandhi. “Most of us are worried that demand will far outstrip supply. People are talking about lotteries to determine who gets them.”
The Department of Health and Human Services will continue to distribute the drugs to states on the basis of their COVID-19 burdens, and the states will then decide how much to provide to each health care facility.
Although the HHS goal is to ensure that the drugs reach as many patients as possible, no matter where they live and regardless of their income, there are still concerns that larger facilities serving more affluent areas will end up being favored, if only because they are the ones best equipped to deal with the drugs right now.
“We are all aware that this has affected certain communities more, so we need to make sure that the drugs are used equitably and made available to the communities that were hardest hit,” says Dr. Gandhi. The ability to monitor drug distribution should be built into the rollout, so that institutions and governments will have some sense of whether they are being doled out evenly, he adds.
Equity in distribution will be an issue for the rest of the world as well. Currently, 80% of monoclonal antibodies are sold in Canada, Europe, and the United States; few, if any, are available in low- and middle-income countries. The treatments are expensive: the cost of producing one g of marketed monoclonal antibodies is between $95 and $200, which does not include the cost of R&D, packaging, shipping, or administration. The median price for antibody treatment not related to COVID-19 runs from $15,000 to $200,000 per year in the United States.
Regeneron’s Dr. Lipsich says that the company has not yet set a price for its antibody cocktail. The government paid $450 million for its 300,000 doses, but that price includes the costs of research, manufacturing, and distribution, so is not a useful indicator of the eventual per-dose price. “We’re not in a position to talk about how it will be priced yet, but we will do our best to make it affordable and accessible to all,” she says.
There are some projects underway to ensure that the drugs are made available in poorer countries. In April, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator – an initiative launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and Mastercard to speed-up the response to the global pandemic – reserved manufacturing capacity with Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies in Denmark for future monoclonal antibody therapies that will supply low- and middle-income countries. In October, the initiative announced that Eli Lilly would use that reserved capacity to produce its antibody drug starting in April 2021.
In the meantime, Lilly will make some of its product manufactured in other facilities available to lower-income countries. To help keep costs down, the company’s collaborators have agreed to waive their royalties on antibodies distributed in low- and middle-income countries.
“Everyone is looking carefully at how the drugs are distributed to ensure all will get access,” said Dr. Lipsich.
A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.