Over the past year and a half, scientists and doctors have been developing ways to treat COVID-19. One treatment—called monoclonal antibody therapy—has been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA. Studies have shown it can reduce symptoms and prevent people from getting seriously ill.
But you might not be aware that monoclonal antibody therapy is an option if you’ve been infected or exposed to someone with COVID-19.
To shed light on this treatment option, infectious disease specialist and Florida Medical Clinic Chief Medical Officer Dr. Emilio Dominguez shares what you should know and answers some common questions.
Click to jump to a section:
- What is monoclonal antibody therapy?
- How effective is it at treating COVID-19?
- Who can get this treatment?
- Do I need it if I’m not having symptoms?
- Cost & insurance information
- Possible side effects
- Where can I get treatment?
- Monoclonal antibody therapy is approved for emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA for high-risk patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and patients who have been exposed to COVID-19.
- Monoclonal antibody therapy is free. You don’t need insurance, but some facilities may ask you to cover an administration fee. Call ahead to ask about fees.
- In the State of Florida, you don’t need a prescription, doctor’s order, or referral to get treated. However, other states may require a referral.
- If you’re high-risk and have been diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s essential to get this treatment as soon as possible—even if you don’t have any symptoms.
- Monoclonal antibody treatment is not a cure for COVID-19, but it does reduce symptoms and lower your chance for severe illness or hospitalization.
- You’re still contagious after getting treatment, so it’s important to self-isolate until it’s safe to be around others. Read the CDC guidelines for self-isolating.
What is monoclonal antibody therapy & how does it work?
Monoclonal antibody therapy helps our bodies fight off COVID-19 by boosting our immune systems’ responses to an infection.
When our bodies are exposed to foreign substances (like a virus or bacteria), we form antibodies that help us fight off that foreign substance.
A monoclonal (maw-no-klo-nul) antibody is an antibody that’s made in a lab instead of in our bodies. Scientists can create monoclonal antibodies to fight off specific viruses—including the coronavirus.
Monoclonal antibody therapy involves injecting monoclonal antibodies into a person’s body to help them fight off an infection. It’s also used to reduce someone’s risk of becoming infected after being exposed to a virus. When it’s used after exposure but before infection, it’s called post-exposure prophylaxis.
Scientists made the first monoclonal antibody in 1975. Since then, doctors have used monoclonal antibody therapy to treat inflammatory conditions, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. Now, doctors are using that same technology to develop monoclonal antibodies to target the coronavirus.
How Monoclonal Antibody Treatment Works
When you go to a center for treatment, there are two different ways that a doctor can administer monoclonal antibody therapy.
- IV infusion. You’ll receive an IV infusion that can take up to one hour to administer. After, you’ll be asked to wait for another hour so you can be monitored for signs of an allergic reaction.
- Injection. Some treatment locations offer shots instead of infusions. This option involves a series of four injections given in the arm, thigh, or belly. You’ll be asked to wait for one hour afterward to watch for signs of an allergic reaction.
Even if you feel better a few days after getting treated, you’re still contagious and can pass on COVID-19 to others. Stay at home and wear a mask when you’re around others who aren’t infected, including family members. It’s okay to go out once you meet these CDC requirements.
How effective is it at treating COVID-19?
Some studies have found that treatment helps your body’s immune system better fight off an infection. However, monoclonal antibody therapy does not cure COVID-19.
In a preliminary study about the treatment developed by Regeneron, scientists found that it:
- Reduced COVID-19 patients’ chances of hospitalization and death by 70%
- Reduced how long patients experienced symptoms
- Reduced the amount and severity of symptoms
Another study found that the Regeneron treatment helped prevent infections in people who were exposed to COVID-19 and reduced their symptoms if they did get infected.
While these results are exciting, scientists are still learning about monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 and how it affects people long-term. There’s some concern that treatment may make it harder to fight off a future COVID-19 infection or reduce the effectiveness of a future COVID-19 vaccine.
If you have concerns about getting treatment, talk to your doctor. They can help you make a decision that’s right for you.
Do you need treatment if you’re not having symptoms?
Yes. If you’re eligible, you should get treated right away—even if you’re not having symptoms or your symptoms are mild. By boosting your immune system as early as possible, your body has a better chance of fighting off the infection. That can keep you from getting seriously ill, going to the hospital, or dying.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is most effective when administered within 4-5 days after you test positive or start experiencing symptoms.
Who can get monoclonal antibody treatment?
The FDA authorized this treatment for:
- High-risk patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19
- High-risk or unvaccinated patients who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19
You must also be over the age of 12 and weigh at least 89lbs.
You’re considered “high risk” if you’re 65 years or older OR you have a medical condition that puts you at high risk of complications. Some conditions that put you at higher risk include:
- Having diabetes
- Being pregnant
- Being clinically obese or overweight
- Having chronic kidney disease
- Having chronic lung disease (including moderate-to-severe asthma)
- Having heart disease or high blood pressure
- Being immunosuppressed because of an illness or medication
You don’t need a doctor’s referral to qualify for care. The State Surgeon General of Florida has signed a standing order that allows Florida residents to get treatment without a referral or prescription. (Note: Other states may require referrals.)
Who doesn’t qualify for treatment?
Monoclonal antibody therapy is NOT approved for patients who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 or require oxygen treatment. It’s also not recommended for anyone who has been experiencing symptoms for longer than 10 days.
Talk to a doctor if you’re not sure if you qualify or you want to learn about other treatment options.
Do I need to be vaccinated to get monoclonal antibody therapy?
No, you don’t need to be vaccinated to receive this treatment.
If you haven’t received your COVID-19 vaccine yet, doctors recommend that you wait 90 days after your treatment to get your first dose. If you’ve had one dose of a two-dose vaccine, then you should wait 90 days before getting the second dose.
Cost & Insurance Information
Just like the vaccines, monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 is free in the US.
However, some treatment facilities may charge you an administration fee when you get treatment. Call your health insurance provider to ask if they cover these fees. If you don’t have insurance and can’t afford an administration fee, seek out another authorized treatment center that doesn’t charge a fee.
Side Effects of Monoclonal Antibody Therapy
Most people tolerate treatment very well, but there are some possible side effects. The most common include:
- Redness, swelling, and/or pain at the injection site
Scientists and doctors are still studying this treatment to fully understand the potential risks and side effects. There are some rare reports of allergic reactions, which is why a health care provider will monitor you after your treatment to make sure you’re safe.
Get medical attention immediately if you experience chest pain, trouble breathing, or swelling of the face, lips, or throat.
Where can I get monoclonal antibody therapy?
There are lots of different places to get treated—including local clinics, urgent care centers, and some doctor’s offices. Many cities and towns have set up special infusion centers to see many patients at one time.
You have several different options to find a treatment center:
- Call your primary care provider and ask them what they recommend (some may be able to provide in-office treatment)
- View this Florida Department of Health map of infusion centers in Florida
- If you’re outside of Florida, view this interactive map from the National Infusion Center Association
Please note that the maps above may not contain every treatment location near you. If you’re having trouble finding one close to you, call your doctor or a local urgent care for help.
To stay updated on pandemic news, visit the CDC website or sign up for the Florida Medical Clinic e-newsletter.