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A shortcut to immunity: St. Joe’s clinic saving lives through early-stage COVID-19 treatment

This article was written by a member of the public affairs department of Saint Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

 

What images come to mind when you think about treating patients with COVID-19? Likely patients on ventilators, family members separated from loved ones, overwhelmed staff and overrun hospitals. It’s a disheartening picture, but what if we could avoid those experiences altogether by treating patients early in their disease progression? Health-care providers at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton are doing just that in a new pilot program.

Zain Chagla, St. Joe’s co-medical director of infection control, is leading a team that offers treatment for patients with early-stage COVID-19. It’s Ontario’s first dedicated clinic offering monoclonal antibody (MAB) therapy and will help determine the feasibility of establishing such treatment centres in other locations across the country.

Jumpstart the healing process

Antibody treatment isn’t new: We’ve used it for decades to, for example, treat patients at risk of rabies after being bitten by a rabid animal. In the case of MAB, antibodies latch onto COVID spike proteins, preventing the virus from invading healthy cells. And they work fast, giving our body a “shortcut to immunity” that clears the virus and prevents us from getting sick.

Those who are vaccinated already have COVID-19 antibodies stored, so the therapy would be ineffective. But patients who have not been vaccinated, or whose bodies did not respond appropriately to vaccinations, have not built up these antibodies, leaving them vulnerable.

“There are people who cannot create these antibodies,” says Chagla. “Not just those who are unvaccinated, but vaccinated individuals who are immune-compromised. They are most likely to be hospitalized with serious complications, but now we can give them synthetic antibodies to jumpstart the healing process.”

Dr. Zain Chagla, St. Joe’s co-medical director of infection control.

Initial studies show a 71 per cent reduction in hospitalizations and a 70 per cent reduction in death. The therapy has been approved by the World Health Organization and the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

For now, Canada has access to this therapy, delivered through a 30-minute intravenous infusion, but Chagla anticipates more products for early treatment of COVID-19 will be available in the future, including those that are available by intramuscular injection or oral capsules.

No substitute for vaccines

Chagla stresses that getting vaccinated is still the best line of defence. However, we have seen unprecedented levels of misinformation about the COVID vaccine, and various populations are skeptical of government-mandated health policies due to historical mistreatment. Unvaccinated individuals are burdening our health-care system, and other patients who need our hospitals’ resources aren’t able to access them: Across the country, surgeries are being delayed and health-care workers are experiencing burnout. Chagla sees this clinic as the start of a solution.

“We can save lives, and not just the patients who come into the clinic, but those who come to the hospital with other life-threatening circumstances. We are keeping those beds and resources available,” says Chagla. “It’s especially important now, as we enter one of the busiest times for hospitals (winter). If we can avoid being at critical capacity, that’s a win for everyone.”

Weighing safety and duty to patients

Initial feedback about the clinic has been overwhelmingly positive. It has also raised important considerations about allocating resources to unvaccinated patients during a pandemic.

“First and foremost, health-care providers have a duty to treat patients,” says Chagla. “Leaving your bias at the door – whether you’re treating someone who is vaccine-hesitant or not – is important. We do this in other forms of infectious disease. If someone with HIV didn’t take the preventive measures available to them, we wouldn’t deny them care.

“We are here to help patients and use the evidence-based tools accessible to care for them the best way we can. And in this case, we are saving lives.”

Learn more at StJoes.ca.

Two health-care workers in the monoclonal antibody clinic.

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Arden Bagni-Fast

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Arden Bagni-Fast is a public affairs specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

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