This New COVID-19 Treatment Could Also Bend Antitrust Norms - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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America's regulators have allowed pharma giants to share trade secrets to expedite a pathbreaking COVID-19 drug. Will it save lives and change antitrust norms?

By Andrew Hirschfeld

  • In a rare move, the DOJ late last month allowed six drug firms to share trade secrets to rush through a COVID-19 treatment that temporarily creates antibodies.
  • Doctors say the treatment could serve as a vital Band-Aid while they wait for a vaccine. But experts caution that it could also set a precedent that could make antitrust action harder in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic is a daunting part of daily life for Dr. Alexander Salerno, a primary care physician at Salerno Medical Associates in East Orange, New Jersey, as people continue to die from the public health crisis. Now, a possible game-changing treatment that is weeks away could help Salerno and doctors across the globe save lives while they wait for a vaccine.

In a rare move late last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) allowed six drug companies, including AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly, among others, to share trade secrets to develop a COVID-19 treatment relying on monoclonal antibodies. The rare move allows some of the drug manufacturers to share discoveries about monoclonal antibody treatments even though the collaboration between the firms would in normal circumstances challenge antitrust laws

Monoclonal antibodies will also be a fantastic tool for early intervention of this disease for those who do end up in the emergency room.

Alexander Salerno, physician, Newark, New Jersey

In the case of a vaccine, the drug teaches your body how to create antibodies naturally so it can fight the illness long term. With monoclonal treatment, the drug gives you those antibodies rather than teaching your body how to make them. This means that the drug will only protect you for a short period of time like a month or two.

Yet this treatment could prove a vital Band-Aid until a vaccine is widely available, suggests Dr. Salerno. “Monoclonal antibodies will also be a fantastic tool for early intervention of this disease for those who do end up in the emergency room.” 

The DOJ’s go-ahead is already bearing results. Eli Lilly announced this week that they will soon start clinical trials of their monoclonal treatment in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health.

“Monoclonal antibody treatments could keep some of the most vulnerable out of the hospital,” says Dr. Sharon Weissman, clinical professor of internal medicine and head of the infectious diseases department at University of South Carolina School of Medicine. “This interventional treatment will be particularly helpful in nursing homes.”

A successful treatment could also help alleviate pressure on overcrowded hospitals. “A stop-gap treatment will free up resources at hospitals,” says Michael Abrams, partner at health care consultancy Numerof and Associates.

In this case, a joint commission of the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said in a statement that they’re trying to “facilitate businesses that want to work quickly to address the urgent public health and economic needs associated with COVID-19.”

Such expedited review processes could be a matter of concern if they become the norm, as that would hurt competition “and in turn safety issues for drug treatments across the board,” says Abrams. But the approach of the Trump administration and the two major agencies responsible for antitrust enforcement — the DOJ and FTC — has been anything but consistent in recent years.

Law firm Squire Patton Boggs has, for instance, raised questions about the Trump administration’s failure to challenge the mergers of health care giants CVS Caremark–Aetna and agribusiness behemoths Bayer and Monsanto in 2018.

In some cases in recent months, regulators have adopted a tougher stance. In May, the FTC Bureau of Competition vowed to continue to rigidly enforce antitrust laws despite the health emergency. The Justice Department sued to block Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System from a partial acquisition of competitor Evangelical Community Hospital following concerns that it would lead to higher costs for consumers amid a public health crisis. And in July, a California superior court judge denied Sutter Health’s request to delay antitrust settlements worth $575 million.

Yet the Trump administration has also been accused of political considerations in trying to block the merger of Time Warner and AT&T, because of the president’s unhappiness with CNN, a subsidiary of Time Warner (now WarnerMedia). Similarly, the DOJ has been accused of partisanship in its criticism of Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post, one of the president’s bête noir newspapers.

That track record suggests that the DOJ’s move with monoclonal antibodies might be a one-off. The companies involved and millions of patients around the world won’t mind if it saves lives.

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