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Monoclonal Antibodies Help Treat COVID-19, But Experts Say Focus Should Be On Prevention

Health workers prepare injections of Regeneron at the monoclonal antibody treatment site in Tampa. Patients receive four shots of the antibody cocktail.
Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County
Health workers prepare injections of Regeneron at the monoclonal antibody treatment site in Tampa. Patients receive four shots of the antibody cocktail.

Monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 has become the focus of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pandemic response in recent weeks. Health experts say the therapy can help a lot of people, but that more attention should be placed on COVID prevention.

The state has opened 21 centers that offer the lab-made antibodies to patients at no cost. So far, more than 40,000 people have been treated at these facilities.

“Really focusing on providing early treatment for the most vulnerable to keep them out of the hospital and ultimately to save lives is what we’re going to do,” DeSantis said when first announcing the initiative in Jacksonville.

When a site recently opened at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, patients hoping to relieve their COVID-19 symptoms waited hours to receive the drug cocktail commonly known as Regeneron. Each person got four injections, two in the arms and two in the stomach.

Kevin Watler, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, said the antibody therapy helps people fend off severe infection and is an effective tool, one of several needed to combat the current surge. 

“Something that's gonna help, but it's not a perfect solution,” he said. “The number one thing people need to do is get vaccinated and, vaccinated or not, people really need to wear their mask because this virus is certainly spreading.”

For the thousands of Floridians who are infected, the treatment is available to “high-risk” patients ages 12 and older who recently tested positive for the coronavirus or in some cases were just exposed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded its emergency use authorization for the therapy multiple times since first issuing it in November 2020 but has not yet given it full approval.

The FDA lists conditions like obesity, autoimmune disorders and lung disease as qualifiers but is ultimately letting providers make the call, according to Dr. Kami Kim, director of infectious diseases and international medicine with USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. She leads a monoclonal antibody infusion clinic at Tampa General Hospital.

“We’ve prioritized the ones who have the most medical problems because they have the highest risk, the most likely to get serious disease, die, etc. but we’re pretty liberal because we want everyone to recover with as few complications as possible," Kim said.

The state-run sites are meant to relieve the burden on hospitals overrun with patients too sick to benefit from the antibodies, and Florida has seen a decline in the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 this week, which Gov. DeSantis attributes in part to expanded access to the treatment.

Up until recently hospitals were some of the only places offering it, typically through IV infusions.

Palm Harbor resident Lisa Sibley, 57, recently received the therapy in this manner at Mease Countryside Hospital, a BayCare facility near Clearwater. The emergency room was packed with COVID patients, so Sibley said the antibody infusions were administered in a tent outside.

“I’m sitting in my chair looking down at the sidewalk, there were IV poles and blood pressure machines and computers and lots of fabulous nurses,” she said.

Sibley has asthma and got COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. She admitted that the newness of the vaccine and the therapy “terrified” her, but in each case she told herself to trust the science.

“I had to take my own advice, step up to the plate and do whatever I could do to make myself better, for my family and for myself,” Sibley said.

And she's glad she did. Sibley said her symptoms quickly improved. She credits the combined assistance of the vaccine and the antibody therapy for protecting her against severe illness.

Still, Sibley is frustrated with Florida's surge.

“We shouldn’t be in this position,” Sibley said. “We should have had masks in place, more people should have had the vaccine. We shouldn't have a governor that is going to withhold funds from people in education because they want to do what they think is best for children.”

The DeSantis administration followed through on threats to punish school districts for requiring masks this week despite a judge’s ruling that education officials could not enforce the governor’s mask mandate ban. The judge found the ban to be unconstitutional but the state said it’s appealing the decision.

The ruling came weeks after another judge blocked the state from enforcing a ban on vaccine passports against cruise lines.

DeSantis has been criticized for downplaying the vaccines while promoting the antibody treatment but he denies this.

"We've got to be honest with people, there are people who are vaccinated who are testing positive, it’s almost always very mild and it was the right thing to do and it’s protecting them against severe outcomes,” he said at a recent press conference in South Florida.

The Associated Press revealed one of the governor’s top donors is CEO of a hedge fund company that invested in Regeneron, though the shares are only a tiny fraction of its portfolio, which also includes investments in Pfizer and Moderna.

DeSantis called it a “political attack,” and accused the news outlet of “discouraging readers from seeking life-saving treatment.”

The federal government is covering all costs of the drugs for now. But Dr. Kim said they are a lot more expensive than the vaccines.

They’re also more complicated to administer because they require a longer monitoring period and more stringent infection control measures as almost all patients are COVID-positive.

Kim said she is all for expanding access to the antibody treatment, but reiterates COVID prevention is key.

“I still think the best thing would be for people to not get COVID in the first place,” she said. “Yes, we have something to treat them if they do, but that’s not really what you want.”

Take it from Lisa Sibley, who said getting COVID-19 completely disrupted her life, not just because of the physical illness but because she felt guilty about exposing other people and couldn’t work or see loved ones for weeks.

Sibley said she's glad more people can get this therapy, but hopes more don't have to.

"I'm very, very grateful the treatment is here, and it is a good thing that our governor is promoting it, but along with that he does need to promote vaccines and masks, social distancing, etc. until we're done with this," she said.

For state-run antibody sites that offer Regeneron injections, check out this list.

This website allows you to locate infusion centers offering the antibody therapy, including area hospitals, urgent care centers and health clinics.

This story has been updated to clarify the connection between a top donor to the governor and the Regeneron investment.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.