The Big Read

‘It is very personal’: AbCellera’s COVID-19 treatment is saving lives in the U.S. In Canada, it’s sitting in storage. Now the company’s CEO is speaking out

VANCOUVER — In early December, Kush Dalal answered a phone call from his 83-year-old father, then in a B.C. hospital battling COVID-19. Though coronavirus-related delirium had wreaked havoc in his brain, Dalal’s dad remembered his son was part of a team of scientists at local biotech company AbCellera who had developed a promising antibody therapy to counter the disease. He asked his son if the treatment was available for him. Dalal lied. “I had to tell him that the doctors have something better for [him] in the hospital,” he recalled. “I basically had to lie to him to calm him down, which was just heartbreaking.”

His father would be hospitalized for another two months. Several times, doctors warned the family he had just days to live. Though he survived, he has significant cognitive and physical impairments from his battle with the disease. “I don’t think he’ll ever really be the same,” said Dalal.

The treatment AbCellera developed, in partnership with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, is meant for high-risk individuals—such as the elderly—who’ve contracted COVID-19 but don’t yet have severe symptoms. Called bamlanivimab, it is a monoclonal antibody therapy, offering temporary, enhanced immunity and helping prevent even more severe symptoms. It takes about 15 minutes to administer through an intravenous drip, according to the company. 

In the U.S., one of 15 countries in which health authorities have authorized its use, bamlanivimab has been used to treat hundreds of thousands of COVID patients; Dr. David Kessler, chief science officer for the Biden White House’s COVID response team, has said monoclonal antibody treatments, including AbCellera’s, save one life for every 52 doses administered.

Canada has also authorized the treatment. But while the federal government has purchased thousands of doses, provincial and territorial governments have balked at making them available to doctors, citing the logistical challenges of administering the treatment and a lack of evidence that it works. According to Eli Lilly, less than one per cent of the patients who’ve received the therapy have been Canadian.

AbCellera has been the standard-bearer for Canada’s resurgent biotech sector, riding the promise of its technology and the success of its COVID-19 treatment to a record-breaking US$556 million IPO late last year. However, its home country’s reluctance to deploy the company’s signature achievement in the fight against the pandemic bewilders its CEO.

“It is criminal negligence,” said Carl Hansen in an interview with The Logic. “It is absolutely appalling and inexcusable.”

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