With hydroxychloroquine a bust and vaccines not coming until after the election, President Donald Trump is touting a new silver bullet against COVID-19: monoclonal antibodies. “They call them therapeutic, but to me it wasn’t therapeutic,” he said in a video he tweeted on Wednesday, five days after receiving the experimental treatment from the biotech company Regeneron. He claimed that he felt better immediately. “I call that a cure,” he said. “It’s a cure,” he said again, defying whoever might have told him to please just say “therapeutic” instead.
Preliminary and still-unpublished data from small studies suggest that monoclonal antibodies, which are lab-grown versions of antibodies the immune system naturally makes to fight pathogens, are indeed promising. Although Trump claims to be on the mend from COVID-19, it’s impossible to conclude from his case alone that the treatment is a “cure,” especially given that he got a “kitchen sink” of treatments. “No one ever got the drugs he got before, in the sequence he got them,” says Myron Cohen, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of North Carolina who is studying monoclonal antibodies in clinical trials against COVID-19.
The president is only one data point. Clinical trials need thousands of data points to determine whether a treatment works, and his endorsement could ironically make it harder to recruit patients for the trials. In hyping a treatment without the data proving that it works and without the groundwork for deploying it “immediately,” as Trump said yesterday he wants to do, he is breezing right past the scientific and logistical challenges still ahead. Trump might have gotten antibodies immediately, but most Americans won’t.