As the lockdown wears on, officials and drugmakers promise that a vaccine is in sight that may finally end this pandemic. In the meantime, other avenues of treatment have emerged that may offer some hope.
The public had a glimpse of these options following President Donald Trump’s short stay at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he recovered from COVID-19.
The president’s treatment regimen included the experimental antiviral remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone. However, Trump was keen on one drug in particular.
“I went in and I wasn’t feeling so hot, and within a very short period of time they gave me Regeneron. It’s called Regeneron. [I got] other things, too, but I think this was the key,” the president said in an Oct. 7 video posted on Twitter. “It was, like, unbelievable. I felt good immediately.”
Trump announced his authorization of free distribution of the drug (and a “very similar drug from Eli Lilly”) for hospitalized patients with COVID-19.
“And especially if you’re a senior, we’re going to get you in there quick,” Trump said. “We have hundreds of thousands of doses that are just about ready.”
So what is Regeneron? The name actually belongs to the biotechnology company that created the drug the president took. Regeneron scientists refer to the drug as REGN-COV2.
In July, Regeneron had just started phase-three testing on REGN-COV2 when the company signed a $450 million deal with the U.S. government to manufacture the treatment. The contract was part of the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program, to get safe and effective treatments to the public as quickly as possible. According to a statement from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump received an eight-gram dose of the experimental treatment as a “precautionary measure.”
Trump called REGN-COV2 a “cure,” but even the most hopeful medical experts say it’s too soon to say, since the drug is still a long way from the approval process. However, recent results have shown promise. In a Sept. 29 Regeneron press release, the company stated that late stage trials of REGN-COV2 showed that it reduced viral load and alleviated symptoms in non-hospitalized patients with COVID-19. It also showed positive trends in reducing medical visits.
According to Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron, the greatest treatment benefit was in patients who couldn’t muster an effective immune response themselves. He suggests that REGN-COV2 could provide a therapeutic substitute for those who are unable to produce the appropriate antibodies naturally.
“These patients were less likely to clear the virus on their own, and were at greater risk for prolonged symptoms,” Yancopoulos said.
In these trials, doses were well-tolerated, with reactions seen in only four patients (two on placebo and two on REGN-COV2). Serious adverse events occurred only in placebo patients. There were no deaths.
Fully Human Antibodies
Like the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine—another promising COVID-19 treatment Trump highlighted early in the pandemic—REGN-COV2 has also seen a lot of controversy in a short period of time. The big issue with Renegeron’s drug is the source material.
You can think of REGN-COV2 as a new twist on an older method called convalescent plasma treatment—where doctors inject blood plasma from a patient who recovered from an infection into people struggling to recover. The idea behind this method is that the blood plasma of recovered patients contains the antibodies necessary to defeat the virus.
One point of controversy with REGN-COV2 is that it was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from aborted fetal tissue. This comes after the Trump administration in 2019 blocked government scientists from conducting studies that use fetal tissue. Critics point to Trump’s hypocrisy in ingesting and endorsing a treatment that seems to go against his own policy.
To develop the antibodies for REGN-COV2, Regeneron used a cell line derived from the kidney tissue of an aborted fetus from the 1970s. Many drug makers turn to this cell line for research, including companies working on vaccines for COVID-19.
However, a statement from doctors within the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute insist that Trump didn’t receive any treatments that go against his administration’s restriction, since it doesn’t contain any human embryonic stem cells or human fetal tissue.
“Uninformed commentary has emerged this morning stating that President Trump has received a medication created with the use of human embryonic stem cells,” reads the statement. “The president was not given any medicines to treat COVID-19 that involved the destruction of human life. No human embryonic stem cells or human fetal tissue were used to produce the treatments President Trump received–period.”
Instead of harvesting antibodies from a human, Regeneron uses animals—specifically, a special kind of mouse that has been genetically altered to have a more human-like immune system. Company scientists say they evaluated thousands of these “fully-human antibodies” produced by the company’s “VelocImmune” mice. REGN-COV2 is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies (known as REGN10933 and REGN10987) that were chosen for their ability to specifically block the virus that causes COVID-19.
Another rodent also plays part of the drug-making process. After scientists identified the target genes in the VelocImmune mice, they inserted them into Chinese hamster ovary cells to produce the antibodies.
Future of Treatment Options
As novel as it may sound, REGN-COV2 isn’t the first drug Regeneron has made in this fashion. They produced a similar drug designed to treat Ebola infection. On Oct. 14, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved this Ebola antibody treatment after it was shown to significantly reduce mortality rates in a clinical trial.
However, while Regenron’s trials on its coronavirus drug look good, Eli Lilly’s single antibody counterpart recently hit a snag. The company confirmed on Oct. 14 that independent monitors have paused enrollment in a study that combined their experimental antibody therapy with remdesivir, similar to the treatment the president received at Walter Reed.
Lilly says the study had been paused “out of an abundance of caution,” but gave no details about what prompted this move.
Of course, experimental, genetically altered pharmaceuticals aren’t the only treatments doctors and patients are trying. Unlike her husband, First Lady Melania Trump decided to “go a more natural route” with her COVID-19 treatment, “opting more for vitamins and healthy food.”
Studies are showing that certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D, can help protect against COVID-19. Other evidence reveals that a lack of key nutrients could raise the risk of infection. But experts are quick to mention that there’s no evidence that diet or supplements alone can cure or prevent this potentially deadly disease.
In an Oct. 14 statement, the first lady reflected on the pandemic, the fear and doubt that people are struggling with, and some basic things that everyone can do to stay well.
“I encourage everyone to continue to live the healthiest life they can. A balanced diet, fresh air, and vitamins really are vital to keep our bodies healthy. For your complete well-being, compassion and humility are just as important in keeping our minds strong. For me personally, the most impactful part of my recovery was the opportunity to reflect on many things—family, friendships, my work, and staying true to who you are,” she wrote.