2021-09-18 11:00:13 They Shunned Covid Vaccines but Embraced Antibody Treatment
They Shunned Covid Vaccines but Embraced Antibody Treatment
Lanson Jones did not expect the coronavirus to attack him. He had refused a vaccine because he was concerned that it would ruin his streak of good health as an avid tennis player in Houston who had not caught even a cold during the pandemic.
But contracting Covid shattered his faith in his body’s defenses — so much so that, with his nose clogged and appetite gone, Mr. Jones began looking for any way to avoid a nightmarish illness.
Monoclonal antibodies, a year-old, laboratory-created drug no less experimental than the vaccine, proved to be the answer. Mr. Jones, 65, became one of more than a million patients, including Donald J. Trump and Joe Rogan, to receive an antibody infusion this month in a glass-walled enclosure at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Vaccine-resistant Americans are pursuing treatment with a zeal that has baffled their doctors, chasing down lengthy infusions after rejecting vaccines that cost one-hundredth the price. Orders have risen so quickly this summer — to 168,000 doses per week in late August, up from 27,000 in July — that the Biden administration warned states this week that the national supply is running low.
The federal government, which was already covering the treatment’s costs — currently around $2,100 per dose — has now taken over distribution as well. Because of the impending shortages, the government has advised states to expect reduced shipments in the coming weeks.
With seven Southern states accounting for 70% of orders, the new process has alarmed some of their governors, who have made the antibody treatment a cornerstone of their strategy for surviving a devastating wave of the Delta variant.
More supplies are being delivered. This week, the federal government purchased 1.8 million more doses, which are expected to arrive in the fall and winter. But, for the time being, some hospitals are running low on supplies, according to state health officials, even as patients continue to look for doses.
“We have providers who are struggling to get the necessary product,” said Kody Kinsley, operations manager for North Carolina’s Covid-19 response, in an interview. “I believe what has occurred is a classic logistics issue, where there is suddenly a lot more demand.”
In the midst of antivaccine misinformation, monoclonal antibodies have emerged as the rare coronavirus medicine to achieve near-universal acceptance. The infusions, championed by both mainstream doctors and conservative radio hosts, have kept the country’s death toll — 2,000 per day and rising — from rising even further.
And, after months of work by President Biden and Southern governors to promote the treatments, they have won the support of vaccine refusers who say the terrors and uncertainties of actually getting Covid have driven them to seek an antidote.
“Nobody said anything negative about it from the people you love and trust,” Mr. Jones said of the antibody treatment. “And I’ve only heard negative things about the vaccine’s side effects and how quickly it was developed.”
While opposing vaccine mandates, some Republican governors have established antibody clinics, frustrating even some of the drugs’ staunchest supporters. Raising vaccination rates, according to scientists, would eliminate the need for many of the expensive antibody treatments in the first place. The infusions take about an hour and a half, including monitoring, and necessitate constant attention from nurses, who are often in short supply in hard-hit states.
“It’s clogging up resources, it’s difficult to give, and a vaccine is $20 and could prevent almost all of that,” said Dr. Christian Ramers, an infectious disease specialist and the chief of population health at the community-based Family Health Centers of San Diego. He compared promoting antibodies while downplaying vaccines to “investing in car insurance without investing in brakes.”
The government-supplied monoclonal antibodies, manufactured by Regeneron and Eli Lilly, have been shown to significantly reduce patients’ symptoms and risk of hospitalization — by 70% in the case of Regeneron’s antibody cocktail. The treatments, which are administered in a single sitting, make use of lab-created copies of antibodies that people naturally produce when fighting an infection.
During the wintertime outbreak of infections, both patients and doctors overlooked the treatments. However, hospitals and health centers have expanded their services by converting dental clinics, mobile units, and auditoriums into infusion centers. Operating room nurses have been enlisted to give infusions in states such as Texas, where elective surgeries have been postponed to make room for Covid-19 patients.
One factor driving demand is that many patients, including vaccine skeptics, have been publicizing their seemingly miraculous recoveries.
7:21 p.m. ET on September 18, 2021
“They’re like, ‘I have Covid, I want this treatment, a friend or family member told me about it,’” said Jennifer Berry, the nursing director of infusion services at Houston Methodist. “The word has gotten out.”
In the first week of September, nurses at Houston Methodist administered nearly 1,100 treatments across eight sites, more than twice as many as any week last winter. The hospital reduced the average time between orders and infusions this month from three days in early August to two days this month, giving patients a better chance of fighting infections.
This summer, juggling infusions with more seriously ill Covid patients forced one hospital to relocate a monoclonal antibody clinic to a strip mall storefront.
However, the Texas Department of Health has aided by providing 19 nurses for a different Houston Methodist infusion clinic, according to Vicki Brownewell, the hospital’s program’s lead administrator. The Biden administration has also invested $150 million in increasing access to monoclonal antibodies, and Houston Methodist has used federal funds to arrange medical taxis for patients who are unable to travel.
Nonetheless, many people are unable to obtain the infusions. Certain communities, particularly in rural areas, lack clinics due to staff shortages and the need to build separate infusion rooms for infectious patients.
Because of the logistical difficulties, some large, for-profit hospitals in San Diego, according to Dr. Ramers, have decided not to administer the antibodies at all, leaving wealthier, well-insured patients to seek doses at his publicly funded clinic. Some of the nurses he hired for infusions left for shorter, higher-paying assignments in critically ill intensive care units.
“The natural, capitalist incentives for for-profit health care organizations do not really favor doing this,” Dr. Ramers explained. “It takes a lot of effort.”