COVID-19 is still spreading throughout the world, and highly contagious variants like delta and omicron are adding a new challenge to the global pandemic.
Getting vaccinated and boosted are still the best strategies to protect yourself from serious COVID complications or hospitalization, but with more breakthrough cases happening, many people are asking what else they can do if they test positive with the virus.
One of the treatments available that may help you reduce the severity of your illness is called monoclonal antibody treatment.
Here’s a bit about how this treatment works, its benefits and risks, and who can receive it:
What is monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19?
Monoclonal antibody treatment was given emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a COVID-19 treatment in November 2020. The therapy, which is used in people who are at a higher risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19, boosts a person’s natural immune system so it’s stronger and better able to fight the coronavirus. It can be given to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people and stays in the body for around 90 days.
“This treatment is a temporary boost to the immune system for people who are at highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” said Dr. Hanady Daas, a Beaumont infectious disease specialist. “It does not substitute vaccination.”
It’s important to know that monoclonal antibody treatment is not widely available, only certain people qualify, and you need to receive it soon after you catch COVID-19 for it to work. While helpful, it should be noted that in early studies, some monoclonal antibody treatments have shown to be less or ineffective on certain variants.
When you get sick, your body produces antibodies to fight off the infection. Antibodies are like your own personal army fighting off the invaders. The beauty of antibodies is that once your body produces them, the same recipe can be used to fight off the same germ again in the future.
The virus that causes COVID-19 has a “crown,” or “corona” on it. This sits on its spike protein. The spike protein is what the virus uses to break into your body’s cells, like a key. Once it’s in your cells, it can start to reproduce.
Monoclonal antibody treatment works by attaching antibodies onto the virus’ crown. This acts like a lock and stops the virus from being able to enter your cells. If you receive monoclonal antibody treatment in the first stages of having COVID-19, you can potentially stop your sickness from getting worse.
Who is a good candidate for this treatment?
Monoclonal antibody treatment can be administered to non-hospitalized, high-risk patients within 10 days of developing COVID-19 symptoms. Patients must be 12 years of age, weigh at least 89 pounds and meet one of the following risk factors:
- 65 years or older
- have diabetes
- living with cardiovascular disease or hypertension
- living with chronic kidney disease
- living with chronic lung disease
- immunocompromised due to disease or treatment
- sickle cell disease
- neurodevelopmental disease
- have a non-COVID medical-related technological dependence
The FDA recently approved monoclonal antibody treatment for the prevention of COVID-19 in people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised or have a history of severe adverse reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine.
How is monoclonal antibody treatment administered?
Monoclonal antibody treatment is typically administered through an intravenous infusion that takes about an hour to complete. It can also be injected under the skin. Patients are monitored for another hour following their infusion. Once you’re done, you can go home to isolate and recover until you’re free from COVID-19.
For some coronavirus patients, monoclonal antibody treatment has worked very well at keeping them out of the hospital and on the route to recovery. It’s even advised for high-risk patients who haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 but who have been exposed. It’s like adding another protective layer.
What are the potential benefits and risks of monoclonal antibody treatment?
Monoclonal antibody treatment was first developed in 1975 and has been used to treat cancer and transplant patients to help make their bodies stronger. Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatment is still being studied. However, there are some demonstrated benefits and side effects.
One study found that monoclonal antibody treatment therapy was 81% effective at reducing symptomatic cases of COVID. Benefits include:
- a lower viral load
- a better chance of staying out of the hospital
- a better chance of surviving COVID-19
“Many of the patients we see in the hospital are coming very late in the course of illness, Dr. Daas explained. “If they talked to their doctor early on to get the monoclonal antibody treatment before their oxygen level dropped, they may have had fewer complications and avoided the hospital.”
The known side effects of monoclonal antibody treatment are minimal. Some people may experience:
- a rash
- anaphylaxis (allergic reaction)
- a sore arm at the injection site
- back pain
- stomach pain
Most adverse reactions occur 30 to 60 minutes after receiving the first treatment. The treatment can be stopped and started again once symptoms go away.
How to request monoclonal antibody treatment
Monoclonal antibody treatment is available by prescription only and administration sites are limited. If you’ve tested positive or are starting to experience COVID-19 symptoms and want to know if you qualify for treatment, talk with your primary care doctor right away.