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Covid variant found in South Africa ‘could evade’ Eli Lilly’s antibody drug: CEO

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Dave Ricks, chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly, told CNBC on Tuesday that he expected the company’s Covid-19 antibody drug to be effective against the variant of coronavirus found in the UK

However, he said the exposure observed in South Africa is likely to be more of a challenge.

“The South African variant … is cause for concern. It has more dramatic mutations to the spike protein that these antibody drugs target,” Ricks told Squawk Box. “In theory, it could evade our drugs.”

Eli Lilly’s antibody drug was approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration in November. The drug is aimed at people recently diagnosed with Covid-19 in hopes of preventing the need for hospitalization. Regeneron’s Covid-19 antibody treatment, which President Donald Trump received after contracting the disease, has also received limited approval from the FDA.

According to Ricks, Eli Lilly wants to work with the FDA to quickly test different versions of antibodies to see if they are against virus variants like the one in South Africa.

“We actually have a large library of these antibodies now that are pre-clinical,” said Ricks. “We could think of a very expedited way to study them in a month or two and then approve their use. That seems like a smart thing because this virus is mutating.”

Discovery of variants

Coronavirus variants originally found in the UK and South Africa have received significant attention in recent weeks. They are believed to be more transmissible – but not more deadly – than previous tribes. Even so, a more contagious virus that leads to more infections could continue to weigh on healthcare systems and lead to more deaths.

The discovery of these mutations also coincides with the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines from drug companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna. It has led to some questions about whether the vaccines – along with treatments for the disease – would keep their effectiveness.

In a CNBC interview on Monday, Dr. Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, confident that his vaccine, manufactured in partnership with Pfizer, will work against the strains of the virus found in the UK and South Africa.

Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, told CNBC it was testing its remdesivir treatment against these new strains, but said Monday the antiviral drug would likely be effective. Antiviral drugs like remdesivir try to prevent the virus from replicating. In contrast, antibodies like Eli Lillys bind to the virus present in the body and try to neutralize it.

There have been no confirmed cases of the variant, which was first discovered in South Africa in America, but according to the Wall Street Journal, it was discovered in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been around 70 confirmed cases of the coronavirus variant in the US that were originally found in the UK.

“It seems clear that Lilly’s single antibody, and likely Regeneron’s cocktail, will stop this as well as the normal variant,” said Ricks of the UK-affiliated tribe. “We haven’t done a clinical study of this effect, but we do have pre-clinical data that strongly suggests that it won’t be a problem.”

Use of antibody therapies

After the FDA approved emergency use for their antibody therapies to Eli Lilly and later Regeneron, problems arose with actually delivering the drug, which requires an intravenous infusion, to Covid patients. In mid-December, CNBC reported that between 5% and 20% of the doses delivered had been administered.

That number is “climbing” now, Ricks said on Monday. He pointed to Alabama as a state where the antibodies are widespread. Alabama “basically runs out and refills every week,” he said.

“There are quite a few” from state to state, Ricks admitted. “We want all states to learn from these practices and really be able to use this medicine, as the benefit is that patients, especially seniors, are kept out of the hospital. We know if you are a senior and have Covid-19 and end up in a hospital hospital bed, the prospects are not good. “

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