In many ways, America's nursing homes have become the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, as the facilities are linked to about 40% of COVID-19 deaths.
Now, the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company is launching a late-stage study of its monoclonal antibody technology, and has employed a unique mobile treatment van to travel door to door to deliver this promising therapy to the residents and staff of America's long-term care facilities.
While progress on a vaccine is moving at a never-before-seen pace, the nation's top scientists have said that a treatment called monoclonal antibodies might offer some protection from infection until we get a vaccine capable of delivering longer-term immunity.
Given by infusion, monoclonal antibodies are similar to the convalescent plasma treatments harvested from blood that's been donated by people who have already recovered from COVID-19.
But unlike convalescent plasma, which relies on blood donors, monoclonal antibodies are manufactured as a pharmaceutical product, meaning they should be much easier to produce in large quantities.
Now, experts are waiting for the results of large-scales studies to prove definitively that monoclonal antibodies can protect people from becoming infected, and to determine how long this protection might last.
Prior research has been promising.
"We know from preclinical experimentation that the antibody has the potential to block transmission of the disease," said Dr. Dan Skovronsky, the chief scientific officer of Eli Lilly.
"In other words, if we give it to an individual, we're testing to see whether they're now protected from getting infected with the virus," Skovronsky added.
Eli Lilly is not the only company working on these synthetic antibodies. The pharmaceutical company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. also announced the start of its own late-stage trial in July, and has received funding from Operation Warp Speed, the United States government program designed to make safe and effective medication available as quickly as possible during the pandemic.
But Eli Lilly calls its study the "first of its kind." Typically, in clinical research, volunteers are asked to travel to large academic medical centers for such infusions. Eli Lilly's study is unique because it uses customized mobile treatment vans to deliver the antibody infusions to nursing home residents and staff.
"They're choosing a good population, going into extended chronic care facilities," said Dr. Todd Ellerin, the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Monoclonal antibodies are promising because they should, in theory, block the virus from entering the cells, Ellerin explained. "The virus wants to enter the cell, so this monoclonal antibody blocks that molecular doorway and doesn't allow the virus to enter the cell."
At least, said Ellerin, "That's the hope."
Eli Lilly is planning to enroll about 2,400 residents and staff of long-term care facilities in its treatment plan. The study, called BLAZE-2 study, is being conducted in partnership with NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
If the late-stage study goes according to plan, Eli Lilly said it could have results in the coming months.