Texas Pins Hopes on Antibody Drug to Ease Strain on Hospitals

One clinical trial showed the drug reduced virus-related hospitalizations by about 5% when given to patients early.

Medical workers use mobile morgues as coronavirus cases spike in El Paso, Texas. (Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times via AP)

(CN) — As hospitals across huge swaths of West Texas continue to be severely stressed by an influx of Covid-19 patients, state and local officials are pinning their hopes on a new antibody drug they say could prevent some people sickened with the disease from ever having to go to a hospital.

While public health experts are optimistic about a state-led plan to distribute the drug to hospitals and possibly other facilities like nursing homes, they also caution that the drug alone is not guaranteed to solve the crisis hospitals are facing in places like the hard-hit city of El Paso.

“It’s one of the tools in the toolbox,” Luis Ostrosky, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Texas’ Health Science Center in Houston, said in an interview. “I fully expect it to have an effect, it’s just, it’s not going to drive by itself the numbers down.”

The effort’s success could depend largely on whether people heed calls to stay home for Thanksgiving and to take precautions throughout the holiday season.

“I truly believe that there’s nothing more important than for our entire community to prudently and safely handle Black Friday and [the] Thanksgiving holiday,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the county’s top elected official, said during a news briefing Tuesday.

Texas is among the many states receiving allocations of the drug, Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab, after the federal government authorized it for emergency use earlier this month. El Paso has received about 1,000 doses of the drug so far, officials said, while the Lubbock area has received about 300.

The state’s focus on the drug comes after a recent court ruling in El Paso that essentially took local shutdown orders off the table as an option for dealing with a troubling resurgence of the virus across the state.

Texas reported another record-high daily number of 14,648 new virus cases on Wednesday, while statewide Covid-19 hospitalizations have grown to almost 80% of their all-time peak in late July.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott, whose attorney general led the legal fight that overturned a temporary shutdown in El Paso, traveled to West Texas last week to promote the plan for the antibody drug.

Speaking in Lubbock, where 28% of the region’s hospital beds are now filled with Covid patients, Abbott outlined a plan to begin shipping the antibody drug to hospitals across the state on a weekly basis. The goal, he said, is to quickly give the drug to patients who develop mild or moderate cases of the disease but are at high risk for severe complications.

Abbott also this week announced his plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines once they’re available, which calls for distributions focused initially on protecting health care and other frontline workers and vulnerable populations.

In the meantime, doctors hope the antibody treatments will prevent at least some virus patients from developing severe cases and will allow them to recover from the disease at home, as opposed to being rushed to hospitals. They’re encouraged by the science: one clinical trial showed the drug reduced Covid-19 related hospitalizations by about 5% when given to patients early in the course of the disease.

While businesses across West Texas have been required to scale back their capacity to 50% from 75% in recent weeks as Covid-19 hospitalizations have surged, Abbott has made clear that the plan for the antibody drug will not be accompanied by the kind of sweeping restrictions he implemented during the state’s previous summer surge.

“Statewide, we’re not going to have another shutdown,” the governor said in Lubbock.

In El Paso, a “pilot program” for the antibody drug treatments is already underway. One male patient was sent to the city’s convention center to begin receiving an infusion of the drug on Tuesday, officials said.

Ed Michelson, an emergency medicine expert at Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center in El Paso, said raw data alone will not be enough to gauge the program’s effectiveness in the weeks ahead.

“Just looking at our daily hospital numbers won’t tell us whether this bent the curve or not,” Michelson said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “The only way to know is by actually following the patients, seeing how many of them stay out of the hospital.”

“I think it’ll help,” he said. “I don’t know how much.”

Officials in Lubbock hope the drug will help rein in what they’ve described as an untenable situation for the region’s hospitals.

“Our hospitals, our emergency rooms and our ICUs are saturated,” Lubbock County’s public health authority Ron Cook said during a briefing Tuesday. “We cannot tolerate and handle any more increase in the cases that we already have coming in.”

Cook and other local officials urged the public to take safety precautions over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Our surge in cases is not due to super-spreader events,” said Katherine Wells, Lubbock’s health department director. “It’s the accumulation of thousands of decisions that are made across the community to ignore public health guidance of wearing a mask, staying home when you are sick and keeping physically distant.”

Michelson, the health expert involved in El Paso’s antibody drug program, said he was concerned that Thanksgiving could become the region’s next super-spreader event, which would chip away at the overall effectiveness of the drug program.

Still, he said, the program is expected to reduce Covid-19 hospitalizations by anywhere from 45 to 110 patients out of 1,000 cases, which he would consider a success.

“This product is being provided to us at no cost to the patients, but clearly there is a cost going forward for obtaining doses,” Michelson said. “So we’ll have to see how many hospitalizations we save, and then decide whether the effort that’s going into this is justified by the outcome.”

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