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Health professionals wonder about future of COVID drugs as federal funding wanes

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People walk into a tent for a free monoclonal antibody treatment in Miami.

A free monoclonal antibody treatment site in Miami. Eli Lilly said it will provide more of its antibody medication to the government, but drugmakers may shift their sales to the commercial market. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Here’s your routine reminder that this pandemic isn’t over: Drugmaker Eli Lilly said Wednesday that it will supply the U.S. government with another 150,000 doses of its COVID-19 monoclonal antibody drug, bebtelovimab. The price tag for taxpayers is about $275 million.

It’s welcome news for medical professionals who have been dealing with uncertainty about how long government-funded COVID therapeutics will be available. Federal funding to fight the pandemic is running low, although the White House is trying to get Congress to authorize more.

So, doctors like Duke University’s Cameron Wolfe have questions about supplies of therapeutics, including Lilly’s bebtelovimab. “What’s the supply that’s going to continue to be provided by the federal government?” he asked. “How long will it last? How much warning do I have that this may change eventually to a commercial market?”

The supply of Lilly’s treatment is being watched closely.

Pharmacist Nicholas Torney of Munson Medical Center in Michigan specializes in infectious diseases. Just a few months ago, he said, there were multiple agents they could use to treat COVID patients.

“But then the virus mutated, and now we only have bebtelovimab as the only monoclonal antibody for treatment at this point.”

A pivot by Lilly and other drugmakers to selling their COVID treatments on the commercial market is a realistic scenario, according to Carri Chan of Columbia Business School. That worries her.

“These are new medications. We are years away from having cheap, generic options. And so for those without insurance, it becomes inaccessible,” she said.

Some therapeutics have been hard to get even with the government paying for them, said Rob Relyea, a programmer who built and runs websites aimed at helping people find them in their communities.

“It’s scary to know that supply is not guaranteed going forward,” he said. Especially as new variants continue to emerge.

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