Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is vowing to begin dispensing Regeneron monoclonal antibodies - the treatment given to President Donald Trump when he had the coronavirus - through mobile clinics amid a record-breaking stretch of new cases and hospitalizations that have ravaged the state.
DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference in Jacksonville on Thursday that while coronavirus vaccines have been effective at preventing illness and death, more was needed to help curb the spread of the virus in a state that has become the U.S. hotbed of the latest surge of infections. The governor championed Regeneron's monoclonal antibody cocktail for those who have already gotten sick, saying it is "the most effective treatment that we've yet encountered for people who are actually infected with covid-19."
"Covid's not going to go away," DeSantis said. "So the question is how are we going to approach it. You can approach it on the front end by protecting yourself, but of course, if you end up in a situation where you are infected and at high risk, getting in here early, this is the best shot we've got right now to keep people out of the hospital and keep them safe."
The antibody treatment, a cocktail of the monoclonal antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab that is made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, is designed to prevent infected people from developing severe illness. DeSantis's promotion of Regeneron, which imitates the body's natural defenses, is the governor's latest response to a pandemic in which he has rejected mask mandates and restrictions.
While doctors have noted the treatment's promise and effectiveness in clinical trials, others have stressed that taking the vaccine remains the most crucial defense to fight the spread of the virus. One physician noted that there is only a small supply, making the Regeneron antibodies "an extremely effective treatment for a limited number of people."
DeSantis told reporters that the mobile units, which are already operating in parts of the state hit hard by the delta variant, will be expanded throughout Florida. The Trump administration last year initially bought 300,000 doses of Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment, which costs about $1,500 per dose. DeSantis did not specify how many Floridians would have access to the shots.
The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to Regeneron in November, saying that the treatment may be effective in treating mild to moderate covid-19 in adults and children 12 or older, and is indicated for those at high risk of developing severe illness. The FDA expanded Regeneron's emergency authorized use last month, enabling the treatment for people exposed to someone who has been infected or for those at high risk of exposure in settings such as prisons or nursing homes.
DeSantis urged people at high risk to get the treatment at the first sign of symptoms, suggesting that Floridians "won't even necessarily need a prescription from a doctor" to obtain Regeneron. Doctors and health professionals have indicated that people who are severely ill from the coronavirus are less likely to see benefits from monoclonal antibodies.
"I do think this is probably the best thing we can do to reduce the number of people that require hospitalization," DeSantis said.
The state reported 24,730 new cases on Thursday, bringing its seven-day average to more than 18,000 cases a day, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. With 15,796 people hospitalized for the virus, Florida now accounts for 1 out of every 5 covid hospitalizations in the nation. More than 3,200 people are currently occupying beds in intensive care units, an increase of 17% from last week.
DeSantis has opposed implementing pandemic restrictions during the fourth wave of the pandemic. The Republican is in a back-and-forth with school districts that are pushing for mask mandates for children returning to school. That debate is expected to intensify after four educators in Broward County died of the virus within 24 hours, CBS Miami reported.
The Regeneron cocktail is best known as the antibody treatment given to Trump when it was still an investigational drug after he contracted the virus last October. Other high-profile Republicans, such as Rudolph Giuliani and Ben Carson, also acknowledged receiving the Regeneron drug.
After he was released from the hospital, Trump inaccurately described the Regeneron cocktail as a "cure" and pressed the FDA to quickly clear the medication. While demand was expected to surge when Trump made a laudatory video in which he promised to make the antibody treatments free to patients needing them, officials acknowledged that many patients and doctors did not know much about the medicine and were not asking for it.
Still, Regeneron announced this week in its quarterly earnings report that it had $2.59 billion in sales for its antibody drug, an increase of 163% compared to this time last year.
DeSantis on Thursday promoted Regeneron as achieving a "70% reduction in hospitalization and death for covid patients" in clinical trials, referencing an announcement by the company in the spring. But Dushyantha Jayaweera, a clinical professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told WPLG that the decrease in hospitalizations was more like a "relative risk reduction."
"So he's kind of giving the more optimistic, more flowery view," Jayaweera said. "But the reality is that it is much less."
Kami Kim, director of the division of infectious-disease and international medicine with the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine, told the Orlando Sentinel that while Regeneron could help those who have been infected, other options remain easier for helping to address the Sunshine State's surge.
"The number one strategy is probably going back to social distancing again and wearing masks," Kim said. "And obviously, Governor DeSantis has his view on that, which most public health people would not entirely agree with."
Those who choose to get the Regeneron treatment at the Jacksonville site will be given the option of either getting four shots in the stomach, or two in the stomach and two in the arm, according to WTLV. Those patients will then be observed for an hour inside an air-conditioned tent.
In announcing the treatment, DeSantis claimed that the Regeneron treatment should "become part of the standard of care" for Floridians moving forward.
“This is going to be with us for a long time,” he said.