Short Wave: How Effective Are Antibody Treatments For COVID-19?

The FDA has given emergency use authorization to two monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 – bamlanivimab, produced by Eli Lilly, and a two-antibody combination developed by Regeneron.

As science correspondent Richard Harris explains, emergency use authorization doesn’t assure that these new drugs are effective, but that their potential benefits are likely to outweigh the risks. On today’s episode, we look at how they work and why their impact on the pandemic could be limited.

Supply is one issue. The federal government has purchased 1.2 million doses of the drugs to distribute across the U.S. Of that, 157,000 have already been delivered. For perspective, the U.S. is averaging 1 to 2 deaths from the coronavirus every minute, and the CDC has said that the current wave of the pandemic in the U.S. has not yet peaked.

Another challenge: administering the drugs. The federal government is distributing doses to where the coronavirus is running rampant. But those areas are exactly where hospitals are already being overrun, raising concerns that some may not have sufficient staff and space to take on another time consuming task. (These antibodies are administered intravenously – a process that can take two hours or more.)

Bob Wachter, the chair of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, says ultimately this treatment is one weapon in a larger fight against the coronavirus. “It’s a nice arrow to have for the right patient, but you’re talking about a handful of patients getting it, it’s not going to be the thousands or hundreds of thousands we need to really change the game.”

For him, the real game-changer will be vaccines.

Check out more of Richard’s reporting on monoclonal antibody treatment:

Email the show your questions, coronavirus or otherwise, at

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. Ted Mebane was the audio engineer.


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