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Could COVID-19 Be Treated By Drug Trump Is Touting?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Donald Trump today continued to tout an experimental treatment he received for COVID-19. Here he is in a video he posted on Twitter today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have medicines right now, and I call them a cure.

CORNISH: But is it a cure? And if so, how soon could it be available outside of experimental use? Here to explain, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. And, Richard, explain a little bit more about what this drug is that the president is excited about.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Yeah, the president received intensive medical care, including three significant drugs. But the one he credits his rapid recovery to is called a monoclonal antibody. In theory, it blocks the virus the way our own antibodies do once you develop immunity to a disease. It's - you know, it's an exciting concept. And two companies say they have experimental products up for review at the Food and Drug Administration.

CORNISH: The president is telling the public, though, that it'll be available really soon, soon enough to help people - right? - who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Is that true?

HARRIS: Well, first of all, it's most likely to be effective early in the disease - actually, as a way to keep people out of the hospital. Yesterday, the chief scientific officer of Eli Lilly, Dr. Dan Skovronsky, told reporters that, you know, he's not expecting a snap decision about the emergency use application that the company submitted yesterday.

DAN SKOVRONSKY: Adequate and deep scientific review inevitably takes time. We've submitted a lot of data to the agency, and our expectation is there will be a careful and thorough review of it.

HARRIS: And the FDA is not supposed to bend to political pressure from the president, but the agency is clearly feeling it at the moment.

CORNISH: The president's - in his video said for the first time he was very sick last week, and now he says he's not contagious at all. What do we know about people who have been infected and how long they're considered infectious after the fact?

HARRIS: Health officials say people with mild to moderate illness could - should actually isolate for 10 days after their first symptoms to make sure that they are no longer infectious. Trump got sick seven days ago, as far as we know. But, you know, he's also taking a steroid drug, and doctors say that could possibly extend the time that he could be infectious.

CORNISH: The president's doctor said that he has the antibodies to the coronavirus. What does that tell us about the course of the disease?

HARRIS: Well, nothing really because it's likely those antibodies are the monoclonal antibodies that he was infused with, not the ones from his own immune system. Those antibodies probably persist for a few weeks, the synthetic ones. And immunobiologist Deepta Bhattacharya at The University of Arizona says there's a chance that the treatment could actually prevent people from developing their own immunity.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: But would it work like a vaccine would? No way. There's no way that you'd mount the same level of a response that you would, you know, if you are left to the normal infection or whether you received a vaccine.

HARRIS: So we'll have to wait and see about that.

CORNISH: But if it's deemed safe and recommended, will there be even enough to go around, essentially?

HARRIS: Well, certainly not in the short run. Eli Lilly is hoping to have up to a million doses for worldwide use, though, by the end of the year. And the other company, Regeneron, is hoping to produce 50,000 doses. Dave Ricks, CEO of Lilly, says this isn't a competition.

DAVE RICKS: We're rooting for Regeneron's success, as I'm sure they are for ours, because the main constraint here is manufacturing capacity. Neither company, plus all our partners, could produce enough for the world right now based on the incidence of the disease.

HARRIS: So that obviously leaves all sorts of questions about how to distribute it fairly, assuming it does end up on the market.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Richard Harris. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: Sure, Audie. Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLAR BEARS' "PEEPERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.