Eli Lilly & Co.’s rheumatoid arthritis drug and GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s monoclonal antibody won the backing of World Health Organization experts for treating Covid-19 as new infections surge across the globe.
There’s evidence that Lilly’s baricitinib can improve survival rates and reduce the need for ventilation in severely ill patients, the WHO said in a statement, advising a combination with corticosteroids. Two other drugs in the same class, known as JAK inhibitors, shouldn’t be used for Covid, the agency said.
The WHO’s guideline update validates conclusions reached months ago by some health regulators. The advice on baricitinib, for example, comes after U.S. and European Union agencies gave the drug emergency-use approval last May. Some scientists criticized the Geneva-based agency for not weighing in on antiviral pills developed by Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. in a timely manner.
“The main issue with this version of the guideline is its silence concerning the potential community use of oral antiviral medications, which are now approved for use in multiple countries,” Penny Ward, a visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, said in remarks to the U.K.’s Science Media Center.
The WHO also endorsed Glaxo and Vir Biotechnology Inc.’s monoclonal antibody for patients who aren’t very ill but are deemed likely to require hospitalization, even as it acknowledged the antibodies’ effectiveness against the omicron variant “is still uncertain.” The U.S. and the U.K. approved the Glaxo-Vir treatment last year.
Another monoclonal antibody developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. got the WHO’s endorsement last year. There isn’t enough data to recommend one product over the other, the Geneva-based agency said Friday.
Doctors Without Borders called on governments to ensure that the Lilly drug can be made available at low costs in poorer nations, saying generic forms are already sold in India and Bangladesh.
Baricitinib has similar effects to other arthritis drugs called interleukin-6 inhibitors such as Roche Holding AG’s tocilizumab, so when both are available the WHO suggested choosing one based on cost, availability, and clinician experience.