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US secures more Lilly COVID-19 antibodies for $275M, but with pandemic funding uncertain this may be a swan song

Developing an antibody treatment that is effective against the omicron variant of COVID-19 has paying off for Eli Lilly. But the company may soon lose its primary customer—the U.S. government.

Wednesday, Lilly revealed a purchase agreement with the U.S. to provide 150,000 doses of bebtelovimab for $275 million. Based on current demand, the supply should carry the U.S. through to the end of August, the company said.

But Lilly also warned that this could be the last shipment of COVID antibodies to the U.S. as the government is close to exhausting its pandemic relief funds.

“While Congress works toward additional COVID-19 funding, Lilly and the U.S. government will continue to work together to support the availability of bebtelovimab to maximize equity and accessibility in the U.S. market,” Lilly CEO and Chairman David Ricks said in a release.

If the Biden administration is unsuccessful in its attempt to convince Congress to earmark more funds for the pandemic, Lilly would need to sell its antibodies directly to hospitals and to states individually, which would provide a litmus test of how COVID products would work on the commercial market. It also would be a challenge—as Ricks warns—to maintain equitable distribution.

Securing more government funds for the pandemic is hardly a slam dunk. In a congressional hearing June 16, Republicans pushed back against Biden’s request.

“Does the FDA have a plan to allow states or healthcare providers to purchase vaccines and treatments, to help put purchasing decisions back in the hands of the American public instead of the federal government?” Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, asked.

Wednesday’s deal with Lilly is on top of another—made four months ago—for the company to deliver 600,000 courses of the treatment for $720 million. The U.S. provides the antibodies for free to those 12 and older who have recently been infected and are at a high risk of progressing to a severe form of the virus.

Since bebtelovimab was authorized by the FDA on an emergency basis Feb. 11, two subvariants of omicron—BA.4 and BA.5—have taken over as the dominant strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Lilly antibodies remain active against those emerging and more transmissible subvariants, the company said.

Lilly will begin delivery immediately, it said, and will complete the supply no later than Aug. 5. The U.S. will have the option to secure an additional 350,000 doses no later than Sep. 14.

While Pfizer’s pill Paxlovid remains the preferred treatment for at-risk patients who have been recently infected, infused bebtelovimab is a secondary option when the oral antiviral is not available.

Supplies of Paxlovid and Merck’s antiviral pill Lagevrio are expected to last to the end of this year.