COLUMBUS, Ohio — Across the country, hospitals are administering soaring numbers of monoclonal antibody treatments to COVID-19 patients, and doctors say it’s making a critical impact in reducing hospitalizations.
What You Need To Know
- The demand for monoclonal antibody treatments is rising in the U.S.
- Some unvaccinated COVID-19 patients decline the infusions
- Doctors say treatments can reduce hospitalizations, but won't end the pandemic
But while demand for the drug has risen during this wave of the virus, hospitals have said an alarming number of unvaccinated patients are declining the infusions, and turning down what could be a second chance to avoid severe illness.
Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made molecules that mimic natural antibodies. The treatments are designed to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight infection, according to experts.
“It seems to be working really, really well. Our data here internally shows that we've likely decreased the hospitalization rate for those who have been infused by almost 70%,” said Dr. Jonathan Parsons.
Parsons is a pulmonary critical care physician who leads Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s monoclonal antibody operations. He said Ohio State reopened its monoclonal antibody infusion center in August when COVID-19 cases took off in the region. Last month, the hospital administered more infusions than it did in the prior five months combined, he said.
During the spring and early summer, Ohio State was only infusing about two to five patients per day because the COVID-19 numbers had dropped significantly. The hospital is now averaging more than 20-25 infusions and operating its center seven days per week.
Candidates for the treatment are patients with mild to moderate COVID, who are not yet hospitalized, but have risk factors that may increase their chances of becoming severely ill.
Eligible patients include seniors 65 and older as well as people who are obese or have underlying health conditions.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made one of the strongest pushes for monoclonal antibody treatments, opening mass treatment centers and calling it patients’ best bet to avoid severe outcomes.
However, Parsons said it's important to remember that vaccines and masks are the best solutions to the pandemic.
“In some states, you're seeing some public policies centered around monoclonal antibody infusion as a primary mechanism to try to quell the COVID numbers in that particular state. That is a losing proposition,” Parsons said. “We are not going to use monoclonal antibodies to navigate ourselves out of this pandemic at all. The only option we have is vaccines and masking.”
As a result of the mass distribution in the south, patients in Ohio have become more aware of the drug in recent weeks, Parsons said.
Still, health officials are concerned by the fact that patients who could benefit from the treatment are declining it.
“What we're seeing is a lot of the people that are being referred to consider infusion are unvaccinated by their own choice, and because of that choice, a lot of them -- for whatever the reason why they decided not to be vaccinated -- are also not interested in getting a monoclonal antibody infusion,” he said.
An Ohio State doctor, who received a monoclonal antibody treatment in November, said in an interview that he thinks the treatment saved his life.
Dr. Darwin Conwell, director of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition, said he likely contracted COVID-19 while caring for patients during the winter surge.
He was eligible for the treatment during a trial because he takes a medication that can suppress the immune system. After testing positive, he received the infusion the same day. That night, he was struggling to breath and fearing death, but, in just a short period of time, he got better.
“The monoclonal antibody treatment is very effective, and if you have not been vaccinated for sure, when you're coming in, and that's offered to you, definitely get the monoclonal antibody treatment,” he said. "I'm a living testimony that it definitely works, and there's a lot of people that have received this life-saving therapy, and they're around today to speak about it."
Ohio State is currently using Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment exclusively, and patients are tolerating it very well with minimal adverse effects, Parsons said.
Outpatients receiving the treatment arrive at the hospital’s center, where they’re seated in an infusion chair and given an IV.
The infusion takes 30-45 minutes and patients are monitored on site for about the same amount of time after the infusion for any side effects, Parsons said.
Regeneron’s emergency-use authorization was recently expanded to include some individuals 12 and older at high-risk for severe illness who are exposed to an infected person.
The company reports that its deliveries have increased since mid-July from fewer than 25,000 doses per week to more than 150,000 doses per week.
When the beta and gamma COVID-19 variants emerged in the U.S., Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab drug lost its authorization because it appeared to be less effective.
But with the delta variant now dominant in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 2 said that a version of the Eli Lilly treatment can be used nationwide.