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Monoclonal Antibody Therapy Is Keeping Some South Carolina ERs From Drowning In COVID Deaths

Monoclonal antibody infusion has been around for a long time, typically helping patients in treatments for cancers and other illnesses. But it's proving an effective lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19.
Courtesy: McLeod Health
Monoclonal antibody infusion has been around for a long time, typically helping patients in treatments for cancers and other illnesses. But it's proving an effective lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19. So far it's reduced potential COVID-related hospital visits and deaths by an estimated 70 percent.

Back in March, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) released a statement about how monoclonal antibody treatments could help reduce the number of people entering the hospital with COVID-19.

Turns out, the department was right.

As of this week, about 600,000 Americans and 16,000 South Carolinians have receive monoclonal antibody therapy (MAbT). And because of that, the state’s assistant epidemiologist, Dr. Jane Kelly, estimates that 70 percent of hospitalizations and deaths due to SARS CoV-2 were prevented.

In South Carolina numbers, that’s “about 2,000 hospitalizations and about 200 deaths,” Dr. Kelly says.

So there’s no doubt in the efficacy of the treatment. It’s more a problem that so many people don’t really know what it is or that it even exists.

In a nutshell, MAbT starts in a lab, where COVID antibodies are grown on tissue. Those antibodies are then pared down to the most effective ones and cloned; made into a serum, as part of an antibody cocktail. They're put into arms through an IV, or, increasingly, through four subdermal injections (meaning they don’t go deep into your muscles like vaccine shots).

Dr. Kelly says these infusions are immensely effective. They’ve gone from being that mysterious treatment that saved President Donald Trump’s life after he got COVID in 2020 to the main weapon against COVID for patients starting to see worsening infections.

Sound too good to be true?

It actually isn’t. But there are a couple caveats.

First, MAbT “does not replace vaccines,” says Dr. Kelly. That’s because lab-grown antibodies are temporary. They only last for about 90 days (which, by the way, is how long you need to wait to get a vaccine after MAbT because the treatment could negate your body’s ability to make antibodies on its own).

So Dr. Kelly absolutely recommends vaccination against COVID, MAbT or no MAbT.

Also, MAbT can’t help you if your symptoms are severe. That’s because COVID ignites the “cytokine storm” in the immune system. The virus leads to overwhelming vasculitis, or inflammation of the vascular system, because it ramps up the body’s immune system like it’s on speed. Giving a vaccine shot or MAbT session at this point “could do more harm than good,” Dr. Kelly says.

You also have to be at least 12 years old and weigh at least 88 pounds to get cleared to take MAbT.

And, you either need to have a COVID diagnosis plus an aggravating condition, such as a weak immune system or a comorbidity like heart disease, or your symptoms need to show they’re progressing dangerously. If you’re experiencing mild symptoms that are not worsening, you likely will not be a candidate for MAbT.

But if you’re eligible, it’s a lifesaver.

Emily Adams, vice president of patient services at McLeod Health in Florence, believes MAbT saved not just her own life, but that of her 12-year-old daughter’s.

Her daughter started school a couple weeks ago. She is not vaccinated and encountered the virus almost immediately. She got a nasty cough and extreme fatigue.

Two days after she was diagnosed with COVID, Adams herself, fully vaccinated since the beginning of the year, tested positive too. She also got the extreme fatigue, along with congestion and a sore throat.

But because she works at McLeod, she knew of the hospital’s MAbT program, which has to date treated more than 3,500 patients.

McLeod’s associate vice president of peer transformation, Jenna Swindler, estimates that hundreds of potential COVID patients didn’t end up needing to be admitted because of MAbT. She says admission rates of patients with COVID have dropped from about 15 percent to below 5 percent.

In its first incarnation, the procedure itself took about two hours. Now, most are done between 30 and 60 minutes, Swindler says. It’s done on an outpatient basis.

Oh, and it’s free to get. Dr. Kelly says some hospitals might charge an administrative fee, but the procedure itself will not cost you a cent, with or without insurance.

For Adams and her daughter, MAbT turned their health around in less than two days. Adams says she’s grateful to know that the treatment exists, for herself and for her daughter.

“I don’t even want to think about what would happen” without it, she says.

Where to Find MAbT in South Carolina

MAbT has been shown to be highly effective and highly safe, even for pregnant women, Dr. Kelly says.

  • DHEC’s website has a map showing where MAbT sites are located. More are going to be added, and as the subdermal procedure (and loosening guidelines as to who’s eligible) advance, Dr. Kelly says pop-up and mobile sites, or small clinics could soon show up too. Find the map HERE.
  • McLeod Health takes patients referred to by physicians, but you can also submit your own application if your COVID symptoms are worsening. Find a link HERE.

And remember, as advanced as MAbT is as a weapon against COVID, it does not replace vaccination. Dr. Kelly says that lab-grown antibodies for MAbT help in the short term, but they don’t stay in the system long, whereas antibodies grown in the body are much more resilient and much longer lasting. To find out where to get a COVID vaccine, CLICK HERE.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.