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Vaccine holdouts embrace COVID antibody treatment, mystifying doctors


 

Houston architect Lanson Jones is one of the nearly 80 million Americans who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine, arguing the shots are experimental, were rushed to market, may cause side effects, and aren’t all fully approved by federal officials.

But when he contracted COVID in September, he didn’t hesitate to seek treatment with monoclonal antibodies -- a year-old, laboratory-created therapy no less experimental than the vaccines that is not fully approved by the FDA and can also cause rare side effects.

“I haven’t done the shot because I hear a lot -- a lot -- of information about what are some of the effects of these vaccines and how it’s really not being reported, and I just felt I didn’t want to put something in me that has some question,” says Mr. Jones, 65.

“But with this monoclonal antibody treatment, I didn’t hesitate. I had no doubt in my mind -- not even one ounce of doubt about it. Not one person said, ‘Oh, well some people have had a reaction to it.’”

Mr. Jones, who was treated at Houston Methodist Hospital, is one of more than a million Americans who have received antibody IVs after getting the virus.

Those numbers are growing, with the federal government recently taking over distribution of the supplies of the drugs, which are limited in many states.

The treatment has been effective against COVID, in helping patients recover, stay out of the hospital, or die from the illness.

But what doctors and public health experts say is most surprising is that so many of those embracing it are unvaccinated Americans who have refused the shot for reasons that could very well apply to the newly developed and experimental monoclonal antibody therapy, as well.

“I think it’s irrational, quite frankly, if you have to boil it down to one word,” says Howard Huang, MD, who heads up Houston Methodist’s infusion program, which is providing up to 900 doses a week. “It really doesn’t make any sense on multiple levels.”

For one thing, he says, the FDA has just granted full approval for the COVID vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, upgrading its status from its emergency use authorization (EUA). Many experts expect the FDA to grant similar full approvals to the Moderna vaccine and possibly the Johnson and Johnson shot, which currently have EUA designations.

Many vaccine holdouts have cited the EUA status of the COVID vaccines -- one step shy of full approval -- as a reason they don’t trust the shot. But the antibody treatments have also been granted only EUA approval, which hasn’t stopped vaccine-resistant Americans from seeking them.

“So, they’re refusing an FDA-approved and tested [vaccine], and then they’re seeking something that’s still under an FDA EUA,” says Dr. Huang. “I just don’t get it. I really don’t.”

Amesh Adalja, MD, an emerging infectious diseases specialist with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, calls it “paradoxical” thinking for vaccine holdouts to refuse a shot that boosts your natural antibodies to prevent COVID, but take an antibody drug to treat it after infection.

“I don’t understand it, I can’t,” he says. “But the pandemic has been politicized and … I think consistency is not something to expect from people who are thinking about this irrationally [and] for people engaging in these conspiracies about the vaccine.

“I do think the fact that people like Joe Rogan and Gov. Abbot and Donald Trump received the monoclonal antibodies does probably play a role in some of the thinking in some of these individuals.”

Terry Scoggin, CEO of Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant, Tex., says even the hospital’s doctors have been shocked by the demand for the new therapy among unvaccinated Texans.

“It’s mind-blowing that there’s been such resistance to the vaccine, but that demand for the monoclonal antibodies is so high,” he says, noting only 47% of adults in the region have received at least one dose of the shot. That’s far below CDC estimates that say 75.2% of American adults have received one shot, while 64.7% are fully vaccinated.

“But our doctors believe in the monoclonal antibodies, so it’s a trust factor -- they trust our community physicians,” Mr. Scoggin says. “I’ve never put the two and two together about the fear of the vaccine vs. [lack of fear] of the treatment. But it’s really interesting.”

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