COVID Infusion Therapy Effective at Reducing Severity of Disease — If You Get It Soon Enough

Lt. Cmdr. Raben Talvo, left, department head of the Naval Medical Center San Diego Office of Clinical Quality, and Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Angela Ramirez administer monoclonal antibody treatment to a COVID-19-positive patient. (Source: U.S. Navy. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Monoclonal antibody therapy to lessen the severity of COVID’s delta strain may be the only drug at this time on which vaxxers and anti-vaxxers can agree.

Some anti-vaccination advocates are counting on being able to get the therapy if they contract COVID, while people who are vaccinated but still get the virus turn to it to lessen the effects of the disease.

Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to clear infections. For viruses such as COVID-19, these proteins are critical to stop the infection.

But the bottom line is that the therapy does not work unless it is given in the first 10 days of COVID symptoms. Symptoms include fever, chills, loss of taste or smell and muscle aches. A complete list can be found on the CDC website.

“The problem is that our immune system takes two to three weeks to make good antibodies,” said UAB professor and Dr. Turner Overton.

Monoclonal antibodies are supplemental manmade antibodies that can be administered early in the course of the infection — the first 10 days after symptoms begin.

The antibodies rapidly bind and kill the COVID virus and reduce the risk of hospitalization by 70% in high-risk unvaccinated people.

“It is incredibly effective if given early enough,” Overton added.

Find infusion locations from the state Health Department or the National Infusion Center Association

The therapy becomes more important in states such as Alabama, where 2.3 million, or half the state population, has received at least one COVID vaccine. More than one-third of the state’s population, about 1.8 million people, are fully vaccinated, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Someone who tests positive for the virus should contact their doctor for a referral for treatment with the antibodies, Overton said. “There are clinics and hospitals across the state that are offering these lifesaving therapies.”

Dr. Sarah Nafziger said last week that UAB has multiple infusion clinics, and monoclonal antibody therapy is given in the hospital emergency department when needed. She is a professor of medicine and vice president for UAB Hospital’s Clinical Operations.

“But they are still reserving the treatment for those who need it the most,” Nafziger said. “Not everybody needs it who has COVID. It is really reserved for those who are the highest risk of being hospitalized.”

Women who are pregnant and positive for COVID should consider the therapy infusions, said Dr. Jodie Dionne, assistant professor in the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases

She said studies show the antibodies are very effective in keeping people out of the hospital when they have other comorbidities, that is the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases or medical conditions.

“Pregnancy is listed as one of those comorbidities,” Dionne added.

She said UAB is trying to ramp up access for people, including pregnant women, to get the therapies.

Those eligible for the infusions include children aged 12 or older who weigh at least 88 pounds and have a body mass of 25 or higher, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

All three doctors agree that the first step to stopping the spread of COVID is to get vaccinated.

The monoclonal antibody treatments include two made by Eli Lilly and a therapeutic cocktail made by Regeneron.

The National Infusion Center Association has a listing of infusion centers for Alabama by place name or ZIP code that can be found here. But the site warns that availability of the treatment at any given place has not been verified recently.

Call first.

The ADHP has a state map on its COVID-19 Dashboard Hub showing statewide locations of places offering the infusions. Click on the Monoclonal Antibody Therapy Locations tab.

The map gives the sites of hospitals, medical offices and pharmacies giving the infusions.

Antibody therapies are restricted to high-risk patients and require a drug order, similar to a prescription, from a health care provider.

Health care providers must verify their patient’s eligibility and verify the availability of doses at an authorized infusion site before they refer a patient to schedule treatment.

The centers are busy. For example, in Birmingham, Mainstreet family care offers the treatments at all of its locations. Mainstreet chief marketing officer Betsy Stewart said the number of infusions jumped from 15 a day in July to 60 in August.

Overton said the infusion takes about 20 minutes, then patients are monitored for two hours after the treatment is complete.

He said the infusions are a safe therapy but added, “Please get vaccinated. If we could get all Alabamians vaccinated, we could get our lives back to normal.”