"We wanted to see if we could help people in nursing homes because the disease has been so devastating," Dr. Dan Skovronsky, chief scientific officer of Eli Lilly, said Monday on CNBC's "The Exchange." "It's just heartbreaking to think about the isolation, the fear, the illness and death."
Nursing homes account for about 8% of Covid-19 cases in the U.S., but about 41% of deaths, according to The New York Times, making them an important place to a study a drug to see whether it can prevent transmission of the coronavirus.
But for a variety of factors, including potential mobility restrictions on residents, "nursing homes aren't set up to do clinical research," Skovronsky said in an interview with CNBC's Meg Tirrell.
On top of that, Skovronsky said Eli Lilly wanted to be able to test the drug in nursing homes "within days" after an infection is identified.
Bringing the lab to the nursing home proved to be a solution to these research challenges.
The labs on wheels are RVs that have been gutted and "turned into research facilities," Skovronsky said. According to Eli Lilly's website, Coachmen called its dealerships and had the appropriate type of RV delivered to Indianapolis, where the drugmaker is headquartered.
From there, Skovronsky said some of Eli Lilly's mobile research labs have been positioned with staff at locations across the U.S. in anticipation of a potential infection at a nursing home. "When the outbreak starts, we're nearby. We drive to the site, we set up research there, working with the staff at the facility and randomize residents as well as workers into this trial," he said.
Shares of Eli Lilly closed up 1.7% at $152.84 apiece Monday, after announcing the start of the trial before the bell.
The company expects to enroll up to 2,400 people in the trial of its drug, known as LY-CoV555, in the coming months. The drug — made from monoclonal antibodies — also is being tested as a possible treatment for patients who are hospitalized with Covid-19.
Eli Lilly developed the drug alongside AbCellera Biologics, a privately held Canadian biotech firm. In using monoclonal antibodies, the drug seeks to stop the spiked-shape protein of the coronavirus from being able to lock onto human cells, which would in turn prevent infection by that virus.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is led by White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, is a partner with Eli Lilly on the nursing home trial, and so are a few long-term care networks in the U.S.
Those trials are focused on determining whether LY-CoV555 can prevent the spread of Covid-19, Skovronsky said. However, he noted that treating the virus is important, too, which is why Eli Lilly also hopes to test the drug on people who have just been diagnosed with Covid-19.
"But one of the things to keep in mind here is manufacturing capacity is limited," Skovronsky said, explaining Eli Lilly believes it could produce more than 100,000 doses by the end of 2020 and "many more" next year.
"That's still not enough for everyone who might need this drug to get it," he added. "We have to think about where we can benefit patients the most. I think nursing home patients certainly are one of those populations."