Monoclonal antibodies are proven lifesavers in dire cases of COVID-19 and have been approved by the FDA for nearly year, but although the White House has begged physicians to start using them, doctors and patients across the country don’t know that they exist—and they can’t get their hands on them when they do.
In one California case, CNN reports, Maya Arana thought the virus would kill her when she contracted a breakthrough case in September after being vaccinated because her body was already so weakened by years of leukemia therapy. Her family physician told her there was nothing to do but stay in bed as her blood oxygen dropped and she felt sicker by the hour.
Luckily for Arana, her oncologist at U.C. San Francisco knew that her family doctor was—as are so many medical professionals right now—woefully misinformed. Though Arana couldn’t walk by that point, her husband drove her to U.C. Fresno where she got four shots of monoclonal antibodies.
“The next day I could feel a difference,” she told the network. “Two days later I could get out of bed and clean the house and feed my children. I really do think the antibodies saved my life.”
President Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, urged doctors to start using monoclonal antibodies—laboratory-produced proteins that mimic human antibodies by preventing the virus and some cancers from attaching to healthy cells—at an August press briefing, stating that they reduce the risk of death or hospitalization by 70 to 85 percent. But it’s as if no one tuned in that day.
Asked why doctors are not heeding the call, Fauci said, “I can’t explain that. They work. We’ve just got to get people to realize that they work. I’ve been trying to get attention paid to how easy it should be to get this done, but I understand that a lot of doctors don’t fully appreciate that.”
Currently, only patients with mild to moderate COVID symptoms who’ve had them for 10 days or less qualify for the treatment. Additionally, they have to be at high risk for getting extremely sick, including people over 65 and people over 12 with certain conditions, such as being overweight. The overweight group includes 70 percent of all Americans over age 20, but even while casting such a wide net the medical industry isn’t treating nearly as many people as it could.
In California, United Health Centers doesn’t offer antibody treatment at any of its 24 Central Valley locations, while Georgia’s Emory Healthcare was been administering 75 monoclonal antibody treatments per week during the surge in mid-August through late September. In Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic is giving the antibodies to 30, 40, and even 50 patients a day, but at Boston Medical Center, just two patients receive antibodies each day.
“There is much more that goes into the treatment than just the infusion or shots themselves,” Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association, tells CNN, adding that many hospitals are facing severe staffing shortages.
“These treatments also require the right kinds of equipment, including infusion pumps, IV bags, seating areas for patients. You also need qualified staff to check patients in, deliver the infusions or shots, monitor for side effects, etc.”
Yet, getting the treatment to those who need it is doable.
Mass General Bringham in Massachusetts was administering only 27 monoclonal antibodies per week in August. That number has since risen to 150 weekly at 11 sites.
“It should be easy,” according to Harvard Medical School infectious disease expert Dr. Lindsey Baden, “but there’s infrastructure, there’s fluid bags and pumps that have to be set at the right rate, and the right tubing, and not every tubing is right for every pump, and you have to have a computer system that allows you to put in the right order and the right label on the right bag.”
But, Baden adds, “None of this is rocket science, and I’m not raising this to say these are insurmountable. These are speed bumps. But this is all solvable. This is a solvable problem.”