Even Jeff Thompson, vice president of pharmacy services for Freeman Health System, jokingly admits that he has trouble pronouncing its name.
Regardless, the bamlanivimab monoclonal antibody therapy drug — Thompson often shortens it to “bam” — has helped more than 100 area residents since December cope with mild COVID-19 symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency-use authorization in early November for three of these revolutionary drugs to be used for COVID-19-positive patients — bamlanivimab, which is currently being offered at Freeman, along with casirivimab and imedvimab.
But the drugs aren’t “miracle cures or magic bullets,” Thompson said during a news conference last week. They won’t make a person immune to the coronavirus, and they don’t work in partnership with the two vaccines now being distributed to Americans nationwide, he said.
What they do, he said, is prevent people already showing mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms from progressing to the point where they would require immediate hospitalization and ventilators.
“It’s supposed to prevent you from getting worse,” Thompson said. “I don’t just give this (drug) to you and you magically get better. This isn’t a cure. It’s really to stop progression to a more serious situation.”
Alisha and Jeff Brady, of Anderson, both tested positive for COVID-19 in late December and began showing mild symptoms on Dec. 28 — mostly fatigue, loss of taste and smell, headaches, and stomach cramps.
The couple, married for 47 years, chose to take the drug after consulting with loved ones and their personal doctor.
“I had a friend who told me I should get it,” Alisha Brady said. “My daughter looked into it and said it was available for us and we should get it. My husband’s sister is (a registered nurse) and thought it was a good idea. I called my doctor and asked him if he recommended it, and he did.”
Bamlanivimab is manufactured in a laboratory solely to produce what’s called “neutralizing antibodies,” which are proteins that bind to foreign invaders and prevent them from attaching to healthy cells and infecting the rest of the body. These manufactured antibodies hold the line, so to speak, against the coronavirus until the person’s natural immune system can finally kick into gear and shed the body of the foreign virus.
The Bradys were treated with the drug on Jan. 4, escorted into the hospital from their car because they were still under COVID-19 quarantine and had to be separated from the public.
The bamlanivimab was administered by infusion into their bodies, meaning the medication was delivered intravenously. The procedure lasted three hours, with one hour spent under supervision to see if either of them showed any abnormal side effects from the drug. Neither did, Alisha Brady said.
“It was all very professionally done,” she said. “You couldn’t feel a thing; it was totally painless. We just watched TV and rested.”
Prior to the treatment, Alisha Brady admitted she’d been suffering her worst day from her COVID-19 symptoms, dealing that morning with fatigue and “especially painful” back aches.
“I was hurting really bad. It’s hard to explain (how you feel) unless you’ve had (COVID-19). But this virus is crazy. It’s something new all the time,” she said.
Who can get the drug?
Following the treatment, “I was doing a lot better. I still felt the (COVID-19 symptoms), but it was better. We’re both doing a lot better now. Every day we’re feeling better,” she said.
The monoclonal antibody treatment is not recommended for patients who are hospitalized because of COVID-19 or require oxygen therapy because of COVID-19, Thompson said.
“Anybody who comes in here who needs to be hospitalized (from COVID) is not going to get this drug; in fact, studies have shown that (patients with severe symptoms) actually get worse if they were sick enough to be in the hospital if they get this drug," he said. "So anybody (who) gets this drug, it needs to be early on, within 10 days of symptom onset, a positive COVID test, and they would receive it as an outpatient infusion.”
While the antibodies have proven to be an effective weapon against COVID-19, the best hope for people right now, Thompson said, is to continue following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“That means ... masking, staying socially distant, hand-washing and getting vaccinated,” Thompson said. “Your best protection is to not get COVID and, as it (becomes more available), the best protection is to get vaccinated.”