An executive at Regeneron, a biotech group that makes an antibody treatment for Covid-19, has made the unsubstantiated claim that Colin Powell’s life could have been saved if he had received infusions of the drug.
George Yancopoulos made the unusual comments about the former US secretary of state — who died this week from Covid complications aged 84 — at a healthcare conference on Tuesday, where he stepped up the company’s attacks against what it alleges is the US government’s failure to fully embrace antibody treatments.
“I don’t know all the details of that [death of Powell] but that could probably been prevented by the use of monoclonal antibodies in the right way,” Regeneron’s co-founder and chief scientific officer told the audience on Tuesday in Boston.
Yancopoulos said tens of thousands of Americans had died unnecessarily during the pandemic because the government, regulators and the media had pushed the narrative that vaccines protect against the virus without touting the benefits of antibodies that he said could save 70-80 per cent of people.
“I think the failure to communicate that cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. We should have much more aggressively made this information available to the American people,” he said.
Powell’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment made via their Facebook page. Regeneron did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It was unclear whether Yancopoulos had any particular knowledge of the details of Powell’s illness, including whether he did indeed receive an antibody treatment made by Regeneron or another pharma company, or whether he was a suitable candidate for one.
Experts warned Yancopoulos’ comments risked overstating the benefits of monoclonal antibodies and in turn understating the importance of being vaccinated.
Eric Topol, director of the California-based Scripps Research Translational Institute, said: “To make a claim that monoclonal antibodies could have saved his life and prevented him getting sick is not appropriate because we simply don’t know that.”
“These comments are highly speculative, and are feeding a movement that is trying to detract from the number one source of protection against the virus: vaccines.”
Regeneron’s drug gained widespread publicity after former president Donald Trump credited it with “curing” his Covid when he contracted the illness last year, and has become especially popular in some Republican states with high levels of vaccine hesitancy.
Yancopoulos cited reports that Powell had been vaccinated, but speculated that his suffering from myeloma might have suppressed his immune system, making it difficult for his body to create antibodies.
“You shouldn’t be boosting people whose immune systems can’t respond and make their own antibodies, you should just give them surrogate antibodies from the outside to compensate,” he said.
“We have shown very effectively that our [treatments] can substitute for people who don’t have their own antibodies, to prevent Covid.”
Yancopoulos said immunocompromised people were being given an illusion of protection by being vaccinated when they would be much better off receiving antibody treatments such as its drug, called Regen-Cov.
“Don’t keep giving them a useless treatment, don’t give them the mirage, the illusion that there may be getting protection, actually give them something that will protect them,” Yancopoulos said.
Regen-Cov is one of several antibody cocktail treatments that has been authorised to treat people in the early phases of Covid-19 infection to reduce the risk of death or hospitalisation. Demand for the treatments surged 20 fold between mid-July and mid-September, as the highly infectious Delta strain spread rapidly across the US.
The US government is spending $2,100 for each dose of Regeneron’s antibody cocktail — a combination of casirivimab and imdevimab — under a $2.9bn contract agreed to help meet a shortfall in treatments.