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INDIANAPOLIS — Health experts call it one of the nation’s best treatments against COVID-19, but now researchers with Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly say their life-saving antibody treatments are not as effective against the omicron variant.

“The news from Eli Lilly is quite disturbing because these monoclonal antibody treatments are pretty good about keeping people out of the hospital,” said Dr. Brian Dixon, Director of Public Health Informatics at Regenstrief Institute.

A spokesperson for Eli Lilly said the pharmaceutical company completed an analysis of its antibody treatments against the Omicron variant of concern. Results showed that the company’s original antibody treatment, bamlanivimab with etesevimab, showed “reduced neutralization activity” against omicron.

“If these treatments are not as effective, it means that even if someone is able to get access to those monoclonal antibodies after testing positive, they might be more likely to go into the hospital then they would be with delta and other variants of the disease,” said Dr. Dixon.

Monoclonal antibody treatments are typically available to at-risk or immunocompromised patients who recently tested positive for COVID-19 in order to prevent severe illness.

While waning effectiveness is not ideal, Eli Lilly said it is to be expected with an ever-changing virus. That is why the company began working on a new antibody treatment back in January of this year.

“Bebtelovimab is investigational (has not been submitted for emergency use authorization, to date), although our virus testing has confirmed that it maintains neutralization activity against all known variants of concern, including Omicron,” said a spokesperson for Lilly.

“It’s going to take quite a while for [Lilly] to tweak their current monoclonal treatment and have it approved by the FDA and distribute it to the hospitals for infusion into patients,” said Dr. Dixon. “So it’s likely to take at least 2-3 months before we see that new treatment emerge.”

The good news: there are other COVID-19 treatment options approved by the FDA.

Dr. Dixon said a total of three manufacturers produce monoclonal antibody treatments. While treatments from both Regeneron and Eli Lilly have proven to be less effective, a third treatment from manufacturers in the U.K. is proving to stand up against the emerging variant.

Outside of antibody treatments, Dr. Dixon said there is also remdesivir — an anti-viral medication with FDA approval.

Both Pfizer and Merck are also in the process of developing a COVID-19 treatment pill. To date, neither have been approved by the FDA.

“Being vaccinated is still our best defense,” said Dr. Thomas Duszynski, Director of Epidemiology Education at IUPUI’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. “We do know that being vaccinated and boosted do work against omicron at least preliminary data demonstrates that.”

Dr. Duszynski said Hoosiers should do everything in their power to avoid getting infected in the first place by wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated. 

Read Eli Lilly’s full statement below:

Lilly has completed analysis of its antibody therapies, including bamlanivimab with etesevimab, along with our investigational antibody bebtelovimab, against the Omicron variant of concern. As expected, we have confirmed reduced neutralization activity of bamlanivimab with etesevimab against the Omicron variant of concern. 

We can also report that our investigational antibody, bebtelovimab, maintains neutralization activity against all known variants of concern, including Omicron. 

It has always been our view that additional monoclonal antibodies may be needed to address the evolution of the virus. In fact, this is what drove our work on bamlanivimab and etesevimab together, and to begin development of bebtelovimab in January 2021.  

Lilly’s role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has been driven by our purpose – to create medicines that make life better – and our therapies have helped to save tens of thousands of lives.  

We are encouraged that the next generation of treatments – such as oral antivirals – may soon be available as these can be manufactured and administered more efficiently. Lilly is talking with regulators to understand the potential need for additional therapies, like bebtelovimab, and will continue to do our part based on the available science and needs of society.

Allison Howell – Spokesperson, Eli Lilly & Co