Antibody drugs that are in testing and were administered to President Trump could significantly reduce the death rate from Covid-19 once they are approved by regulators and more widely available, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said Tuesday.
The drugs, in a class of medicines known as monoclonal antibodies, have shown promise in early-stage patients with Covid-19. “That’s actually pretty exciting,” Mr. Gates told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit. “The reduction in death rate there could be pretty high, and those will be out in volume by the end of the year, at least in the rich countries.”
The drugs, developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., Eli Lilly and others, are designed in laboratories to mimic antibodies that the immune system produces to fight off viruses and other pathogens. They are injected intravenously and have the potential to work soon after a person is infected and only mildly ill. Scientists believe they also hold promise as a preventive tool, blocking infection temporarily.
President Trump received Regeneron’s antibody drug cocktail late last week under a compassionate use program.
Mr. Gates also expressed optimism about vaccines in development. An effective vaccine could help return life to “pretty close to normal” by late next year in the developed world, he said. Eliminating or stopping virus transmission completely would take two to three years, he said.
Progress on both drugs and vaccines will take longer in the developing world, he said, emphasizing a divide that his foundation and other global players are seeking to close.
Some public health experts are concerned that misinformation, along with any rush by governments to approve vaccines before testing is complete, will make people hesitant to receive one. If only a small percentage of populations are vaccinated, the new coronavirus will continue to spread.
Mr. Gates said U.S. political and business leaders should speak out and help explain the value and safety of the vaccines to their constituents and employees, to lead by example and ease concerns. For example, he said, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worked with religious leaders in northern Nigeria to persuade parents to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio.
“Here in the U.S., we should already be thinking about which voices will help reduce the hesitancy,” he said.
“The CDC that normally speaks out on these things hasn’t yet had that much visibility,” he added, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If the data on the safety and efficacy of vaccines are clear, he said, “I think enough people will be interested and then you’ll build up that confidence as more and more people are taking the vaccine and getting good results.”
The Microsoft co-founder acknowledged that misinformation amplifies quickly on digital platforms, and said he doesn’t yet see a solution.
“That stuff spreads so much faster than the truth,” he said, creating a dilemma for social media companies about how to restrict it while preserving free speech “and not have these companies have to be arbitrators.”
The recent Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” “raises this in a pretty articulate way,” he said.
“Some level of fact checking is valuable,” he said. But “you don’t want to get to the full Chinese solution.”
“We’ve teed up a question and now we need smart solutions, which I have not seen,” he said.