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With COVID-19 delta variant raging, UPMC seeks people in Pa. for monoclonal antibody study

As cases surge among unvaccinated people, the treatment offers a chance to help them, and to better understand the delta variant.

  • Brett Sholtis
Dr. Derek Angus speaks at an online press conference Sept. 8, 2021.

 Screen capture / WITF

Dr. Derek Angus speaks at an online press conference Sept. 8, 2021.

(Harrisburg) — University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is studying the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments in fighting the delta variant of COVID-19 that is widespread in Pennsylvania.

The intravenous treatment consists of two laboratory-made versions of virus-blocking antibodies that help fight off infections, according to a recent NPR report. This helps people “by supplying concentrated doses of one or two antibodies.”

It has been in high demand in areas where the virus is rampaging among those who have not gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, the report states.

While Pennsylvania has fared better than some states, the virus is spreading uncontrolled among the 45% of the population who are unvaccinated. Children under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccinations, adding to the spread. Some people who are vaccinated also are getting sick with “breakthrough infections” of COVID-19, although those cases are rare and generally less severe.

There are an average of 3,462 reported new cases per day over the past week, Pa. Department of Health Data show. Those numbers are comparable to late-March, leading into a surge of cases in April. An average of 1,862 people have been hospitalized over the past week.

The Pittsburgh-based health system announced its effort to continue studying monoclonal antibody treatments on the same day it released a preprint — a not-yet-peer reviewed study, which should not be viewed as established information — that suggests the effectiveness of the same treatment to treat COVID-19 patients.

That research, using a sample of about 5,700 people sick with COVID-19, shows the treatment was able to keep about 70% of them out of hospitals, said UPMC Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Derek Angus.

“We have found them to be remarkably safe and remarkably effective, and we want to give them to them as soon as possible,” Angus said. “That will result in the most efficacy.”

Now, UPMC seeks to target the delta variant, Angus said.

People who are sick with COVID-19 should promptly see if they qualify for the treatment, said UPMC ICU Service Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rachel Sackrowitz.

She noted that the delta variant of COVID-19 is causing a “truly alarming number of people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s” who are admitted to UPMC hospitals in need of critical care. It’s so widespread that the average age of a patient sick with COVID-19 has dropped by about 10 years, she said. Other area health systems also recently reported similar findings.

“This is concerning because these are people who have few other health issues and would otherwise be looking forward to many healthy years ahead,” Sackrowitz said. “But the overwhelming majority have one thing in common. They are not vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Sackrowitz said unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Geisinger and WellSpan health systems recently estimated about 90% of COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.

The U.S. government has bought large amounts of the monoclonal antibody cocktail and has been distributing it. A UPMC spokesman said the cost of the drug is covered by the federal government, and costs should be minimal. UPMC didn’t provide further details.

Other midstate health systems also are providing the treatment:

Dr. Keith Boell, Geisinger chief quality officer for population initiatives, said “so far, studies suggest that patients with COVID-19 who meet criteria and are treated with monoclonal antibodies are less likely to require hospitalization.

“Supplies are limited, so monoclonal antibodies are being administered to those who have the greatest chance of benefiting from the treatment. Treatment is being used for non-hospitalized patients in the early stages of COVID-19 infection, and who have a medical condition that puts them at high risk for severe COVID complications.

“We evaluate patients who test positive for COVID-19 at Geisinger to see if they’re eligible to receive monoclonal antibodies and contact them based on the amount of supply we have. Doctors may also refer patients for treatment if they test positive for COVID-19 outside of Geisinger and meet the criteria as defined by the emergency use authorization.”

WellSpan Health has treated more than 1,500 patients with monoclonal antibodies so far, said spokesman Ryan Coyle.

“Treatment should be started as soon as possible after the patient receives a positive result on a SARS-CoV-2 antigen test or a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) and within 10 days of symptom onset,” Coyle said in an email. “To receive treatment, individuals should contact their primary care provider to discuss risks and benefits.”

Penn State Health offers monoclonal treatment at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and has administered it at nursing homes as well, said spokeswoman Barbara Schindo in an email.

“There are a lot of qualifying conditions, but generally speaking it would be patients who are at high risk for progression to severe disease,” Schindo said.

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