Antibody-based drugs that bind to the coronavirus to prevent it from invading cells can help patients with mild to moderate COVID-19. But the medicines can be tough to find in time.



Monoclonal antibody drugs are supposed to help people with mild to moderate COVID-19 avoid the hospital. Federal officials say the drugs are underused. That's partly because it's tricky for hospitals to set up infusion centers to give the treatments. Also, some doctors are skeptical the drugs actually work, and some people just can't find out where to get treated. NPR has heard of woes like that from across the country. NPR's Richard Harris brings us one of those stories.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Shirley Wagoner is a vivacious 80-year-old who still hits the ski slopes and still helps run the family plumbing business in Spokane Valley, Wash.

SHIRLEY WAGONER: Monday after Christmas, I felt like I had a bad cold - sore throat. I had extreme laryngitis. I still have a bit.

HARRIS: When her sons got sick and tested positive for COVID-19, she realized she should get tested, too. It came back positive.

WAGONER: Friday, I told my son-in-law Myron about it. And he started his search.

HARRIS: Myron Lee lives near Chicago, and his search involved finding somewhere that could administer the drug to his mother-in-law. He'd been following the news and figured she'd be a perfect candidate. She was over 65 with mild to moderate symptoms and hadn't been sick for that long. He couldn't find any information locally, so he called the two companies that make the drugs, Regeneron and Eli Lilly. Lilly got back to him over the New Year's holiday weekend, but the news wasn't encouraging.

MYRON LEE: The weird thing is Spokane's a pretty major city in the inland northwest, and it's kind of a medical center for the whole the inland northwest. But there's not one place in Spokane that has the Eli Lilly drug.

HARRIS: Lilly gave him phone numbers of facilities within a few hours' drive. Shirley started calling around, including to her own doctor's office, which falsely informed her that she would need to be hospitalized to be eligible for the drug. In fact, hospitalized patients aren't eligible for this treatment.

WAGONER: Then I called the Washington state public health, and they'd never heard of either therapeutic.

HARRIS: State officials eventually told Myron to call the big hospital in Spokane, but he simply got the runaround there and never did learn whether they provide the treatment. Shirley finally found a clinic about an hour and a half's drive away that would see her but only if she could find a doctor in that town who would give her a referral.

WAGONER: And then I got to thinking, by the time I would have my husband drive me there, have the doctor appointment, get the infusion - which takes an hour - and then they keep you for two hours to make sure you don't have a reaction and drive home, it would almost be too much for me. It was overwhelming.

HARRIS: And by then, more than a week had elapsed since her first symptoms. The drugs are thought to work best within a few days of symptoms. Fortunately, she was starting to feel better on her own, so she simply gave up the search. She remembered President Trump promising that everyone could get this drug after he himself took it.

WAGONER: That was my frustration - is that Trump said we could have them, but you can't get the dang things (laughter).

HARRIS: The treasure hunt aspect of this drug is slowly improving. The National Infusion Center Association launched a website that lists clinics known to offer it. Janelle Sabo at Eli Lilly says her company has fielded a couple of thousand calls asking for help locating the drug. And she's happy to see that the federal government has just launched a locator website, too.

JANELLE SABO: Unfortunately, it's only 22 states at this point. But hopefully, that will change very soon. I know the government is as motivated as we are to make sure that people know how to access this medication and to try and avoid hospitalizations.

HARRIS: And in case you're wondering, Washington is not one of the 22 states on that federal website.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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