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B.C. biotech firm gets U.S. authorization for COVID-19 antibody

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A local biotech company has discovered another antibody that will soon be used to treat COVID-19 patients.

AbCellera, based in Vancouver, developed bebtelovimab, an antibody that prevents further spread of the coronavirus in someone who’s recently been infected.

The drug is being manufactured by Eli Lilly and Company, and was developed in collaboration with the biotech firm that started in 2012 out of a lab at UBC.

“We’re excited that a company that was founded and built right here in Vancouver, has now stepped up on the world stage to bring the next generation of solutions for COVID-19," said AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen.

Bebtelovimab works by sticking to the virus and preventing the virus’ ability to infect the cell and propagate within the body, Hansen explained.

He said the antibody therapy could be used shortly after being infected to prevent hospitalization and possible death.

“So that is something that can literally save lives, if delivered quickly,” he said.

On Feb. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients 12 years old and older with bebtelovimab.

“Today’s action makes available another monoclonal antibody that shows activity against Omicron, at a time when we are seeking to further increase supply,” said Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a press release.

“This authorization is an important step in meeting the need for more tools to treat patients as new variants of the virus continue to emerge.”

Hansen said the new therapy has shown to be effective in treating Omicron and its subvariant BA.2.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Brian Conway said the first line of defence against hospitalizations and death is still through vaccination.

“This is not a replacement for vaccination, then we need to educate each other about the role of treatments in general terms. All of these treatments via the antiviral medications, the monoclonal antibodies, or other treatments that are being evaluated are meant to reduce the risk of hospitalization,” he said.

Hansen agrees that vaccines are still the primary tool in the fight against COVID-19.

“What we are bringing forward here is a complementary solution. So for whatever reason, there will be people that choose not to get vaccinated. There will also be people that because they are immune compromised, will not benefit from vaccines. Those people may well get ill and when they do, they need options,” he said.

This is the biotech company’s second antibody discovery

In Nov. 2020, Health Canada approved bamlanivimab, which Hansen said has helped to treat 1.5 million people globally and has prevented an estimated 100,000 hospitalizations and 40,000 deaths.

Currently, Health Canada is reviewing eight COVID-19 treatments. It has already approved five treatment options. 

Correction

This story has been updated to remove a reference to Health Canada reviewing bebtelovimab. AbCellera's partner Eli Lilly is responsible for submitting drugs to Health Canada for regulartory approval and so far has not done so for bebtelovimab.

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