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Big demand makes COVID-fighting antibodies hard to get in California

A nurse injects a patient
Nurse Salina Padilla gives Dr. Prabhakar Tummala a monoclonal antibody infusion at Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Health officials in California are warning of shortages and distribution problems for a medical treatment that can keep COVID-19 patients from falling critically ill.

Monoclonal antibodies have been developed as a treatment for COVID-19. They are thought to be a way to counteract the coronavirus before it can begin destroying the body’s organs, said Dr. Rais Vohra, the interim Fresno County health officer. The antibodies can be used to treat mild or moderate COVID-19 in patients who are not hospitalized.

Recently, the nation has seen a twentyfold increase in demand for monoclonal antibodies; as a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reserving the treatment for areas hit hardest by the pandemic, said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for Orange County.

“Because of this, we likely are going to see a drop in monoclonal antibody access for our county,” Chinsio-Kwong said. Healthcare providers are being asked to prioritize the highest-risk people for the therapy.

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In Central California, widespread distribution of monoclonal antibodies has been challenging, Vohra said. In addition to being difficult to order from the state and from manufacturers, the therapy requires nursing staff who can administer it, in a process that can take up to three hours. It’s also a challenge in crowded hospitals to find space for patients to get the infusions.

“A lot of our clinics and hospitals are just saying that they don’t have the resources to commit that amount of time,” Vohra said.

Governors in COVID-19 hotspots endorse experimental antibody treatments even as they downplay vaccination and other preventive measures.

While not a substitute for vaccinations, monoclonal antibodies are a promising therapeutic, Vohra said, noting that it’s unfortunate when a medication can’t be administered because of staffing and infrastructure problems.

“Every patient that gets an infusion today, we may actually save them an [intensive care unit] hospitalization in just a couple of weeks from now, so it’s definitely worth investing in this,” he said.

The Fresno County health official said he’d like the state to increase access to monoclonal antibody treatments for more Californians.

“Let’s be realistic: COVID is not going to go away anytime soon,” Vohra said. “We hope we can get it under control, but there’s always going to be patients that come in ... and if they’re at high risk, this is going to be one of the first medications that we reach for, regardless of whether we’re in a surge or not.

“So we really do need to build the infrastructure around giving monoclonal antibodies. Because if we don’t nip their problem in the bud, then it is going to bloom into a bilateral pneumonia, or something else that will land them into the ICU,” Vohra said.


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