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Eli Lilly is teaching an old drug technology new tricks against COVID—and has promising early results

September 17, 2020, 10:06 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

Antibodies are interesting entities. These Y-shaped proteins occur naturally in the human body to fight off various ailments. But they can also be man-made, as is the case for “monoclonal antibodies,” by inducing immune responses in either animals or patients.

Those little things (also known as mAbs for short) have been around for more than 30 years and are currently used for treating cancer and as immunosuppresive therapy for transplant patients. The world’s best-selling drug, AbbVie’s Humira, is itself a monoclonal antibody.

The fight against COVID has forced the drug industry to get creative with repurposing treatments, or existing pharmaceutical technologies spanning the gamut from older infectious disease drugs to cheap steroids, to see if they can make a dent on the coronavirus. Monoclonal antibodies are also a part of that pharmaceutical equation. And there’s now preliminary evidence that it’s a process which may work.

Indianapolis-based drug giant Eli Lilly announced this week that its own experimental monoclonal antibody, created by reproducing the antibodies of people who have recovered from COVID, significantly slashed diagnosed patients’ need for hospitalization.

Now, the company’s statement doesn’t come with significant data beyond the topline, so it will still have to go through the scientific peer review process. But Lilly claims that about 6 percent of diagnosed coronavirus patients who received placebo had to be hospitalized, whereas just 1.7 percent of those receiving the real drug had to. If the numbers hold, that’s a success that other companies testing their own mAbs haven’t seen to date.

It all goes to show that in the pharmaceutical business, treatments can work in mysterious ways.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you again next week.

Sy Mukherjee
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

Telehealth provider American Well surges in public debut. Telemedicine giant American Well went public in a big way. In its first day of trading, Amwell stock spiked as much as 28% (before taking a bit of a dip at the end of the day). The IPO, and the company itself, was fueled by some prominent powerhouses, including underwriters such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and financial backers like Google parent Alphabet, which is ponying up $100 million in investments to lure the company to moving some of its virtual medical visit tech over to the Google Cloud platform. (Barron's)

INDICATIONS

Moderna says COVID vaccine efficacy data could come by November. Moderna, the "mRNA" platform company that's among the hopefuls for a COVID  vaccine, says that it expects to have significant data on its experimental treatment by November. CEO Stéphane Bancel told CNBC than October data reading (a timeline that Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech, which are collaborating on a coronavirus vaccine, say they will likely meet) may not be in the cards. However, the "worst-case scenario" would be a data readout by December, according to Bancel. (FiercePharma)

THE BIG PICTURE

The COVID dilemma even the most cautious colleges face. I spoke with college students, administrators, and public health officials across the country to figure out just how effective universities' plans for returning to students to campus while maintaining health safety might be. The short answer is: It's going to depend on your specific school's efforts, and passing the buck to students with the mantra of "personal responsibility" isn't going to be enough without institutional accountability. (Fortune)

Climate change is a health care issue. My colleague Erika Fry writes on the pressing matter of climate change as it relates to health care. At a virtual event with experts hosted by Fortune on Wednesday, Surili Patel, a director of the Center for Climate, Health, and Equity at the American Public Health Association, had this to say: “Equity is at the center of every climate or health discussion.”

“We’re talking not just about the distribution of power, but we’re talking about making sure every community has the ability to bounce back from a climate event.” (Fortune)

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Wildfire smoke and COVID are a one-two punch for air quality in the U.S.by David Z. Morris

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