Only six people with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan have been treated with monoclonal antibodies, despite the province having hundreds of doses on hand.
Monoclonal antibody treatment —a one-time injection of laboratory-made antibodies — is aimed at preventing COVID-19 patients who are unvaccinated or severely immunosuppressed from being hospitalized due to the virus.
The Ministry of Health said on Wednesday that 1,209 doses have been allocated to Saskatchewan and the province has received 476 so far. To date, one person has received the treatment in Regina and five in Saskatoon.
Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), said SHA is aiming to treat five to seven patients a day with monoclonal antibodies, but it hasn't reached that number yet largely due to a recent decrease in COVID-19 cases and limited eligibility.
"Given the criteria that these drugs were approved for on emergency use, there is a small population in the province that would qualify to receive it, and that population gets smaller when our number of cases reduces," said Livingstone during a COVID-19 technical briefing on Tuesday.
He said the province was experiencing around 500 cases per day when the monoclonal antibody treatment clinics were being set up. The seven-day average of daily new cases was 185 on Tuesday.
Monoclonal antibody treatments only work on patients who have no or very low levels of antibodies — meaning most vaccinated people wouldn't qualify — and should only be used in the early stages of a mild to moderate COVID-19 infection, within five days of becoming symptomatic.
The treatment is also aimed at people who are 55 or older and have not been vaccinated, or are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed.
In some cases, patients 18 years of age or older might be able to receive the treatment if they meet specific high-risk criteria, according to the province.
Livingstone said there is no cost to the province for the treatment because it's being provided by the federal government.
Is it worth redeploying health-care staff to monoclonal antibody clinics?
The only clinics that offer monoclonal antibody treatments are in Saskatoon and Regina, but Livingstone said SHA is looking to expand to other locations — especially places with low vaccination rates.
When asked if it was worth redeploying health-care workers to the clinics given the low number of patients who have received the treatment, Livingstone said the pandemic is not over and SHA is using all of its options to treat COVID-19.
"As more treatments continue to evolve — antiviral drugs to treat the illness which are coming, as well as more monoclonal antibodies — we will continue to examine all opportunities to reduce some of the most serious impacts the virus has on our health care system moving forward."
Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, acknowledged that monoclonal antibody treatment currently plays a limited role in the fight against COVID-19, but also said clinical treatment for the virus continues to evolve and that includes the use of monoclonal antibodies.
Both Livingstone and Shahab emphasized that vaccines are still the most effective way to prevent serious outcomes of COVID-19 and help control the spread.
Premier should have focused on preventative measures, says Opposition
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said the premier should have focused on the prevention of cases rather than one specific treatment.
"It was frustrating to see the premier pull that out as somehow a game changer, which it just was never going to be," Meili said after question period on Tuesday.
"The measures that would work — things like introducing restrictions on gatherings, having acted earlier on masks and vaccine mandates — these are things that would have made a massive difference to thousands of people."
Health Minister Paul Merriman said it's worth having the treatment even with the low uptake.
"I don't think that the premier oversold this at all. Him and I discussed this and I said we need to have everything available to be able to help people, and if this is a way to help people and we can keep 10 people out of our ICU and out of our hospital, then it's absolutely worth it."
A self-assessment tool for monoclonal antibody treatment is available to people who have contracted COVID-19 and are within five days of being symptomatic. The treatment is available through referral only.