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Demand Is Soaring For Antibody Treatment As COVID-19 Cases Surge

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

In Florida, the mayor of Orlando wants residents to conserve water to help with the pandemic. The city is taking the liquid oxygen it uses to treat tap water and diverting it to hospitals for patients suffering from COVID-19. The entire state is seeing a surge in infections. And as NPR's Matthew Schwartz reports, that's driving demand for another treatment.

MATTHEW SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: A photo that went viral last week showed a woman, 39-year-old Toma Dean, lying on the floor of a COVID-19 treatment site in Jacksonville, Fla., too out of breath to keep standing. She was waiting for injections of monoclonal antibodies.

TOMA DEAN: The line was long. In order to make it to the front, I knew that, if I stood, I'd be back at the ER. So I just laid down.

SCHWARTZ: The photo of Dean highlighted the increased demand for Regeneron's antibody treatment. It received emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration back in November but has been slow to catch on until recently. Today, demand is skyrocketing. In July, sites around the country were ordering about 25,000 doses per week. Now that's up to 125,000 per week.

ALEX BOWIE: It seems to be aligned with where infection rates are surging around the country. That's where we're seeing the biggest order numbers come from.

SCHWARTZ: That's Regeneron spokesperson Alex Bowie. She says demand is highest in states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida - states where the delta variant has been filling hospitals and where vaccination rates are low. The federal government bought out all 1.5 million doses of Regeneron's antibody treatment last year and has made it available to patients for free. The cocktail, called REGEN-COV, is a mix of two antibodies that bind to the spike protein of the coronavirus, blocking it from infecting healthy cells. The drug essentially mimics what a healthy immune system would do.

But this drug is not for everyone. It's only been approved for people who are at high risk of severe illness, like people who are over 65 or obese, after they've been exposed to the virus or tested positive for COVID-19. And Bowie wanted to make clear that these monoclonal antibody treatments are not intended as substitutes for vaccinations.

BOWIE: Vaccination is the best way to defend yourself against this disease, and everyone should get vaccinated. However, if you get sick, you should get treated, and that's really the role of REGEN-COV and the other monoclonal antibody treatments.

SCHWARTZ: As for Toma Dean, the woman in the picture, she's feeling better.

DEAN: Had I not received that therapy, I would be willing to bet anything I would be hospitalized right now.

SCHWARTZ: That, Dean says, is why she's speaking out so that people who get infected will know about this treatment and seek it out before things get any worse. Matthew Schwartz, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND CLOUDCHORD'S "TEA SPRINKLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").

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