‘Some of Them Will Die’: Alabama Hit Hard by Monoclonal Antibody Rationing

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Reporter
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. news and stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is based in Maryland.
September 18, 2021 Updated: September 19, 2021

The federal government’s sudden rationing of monoclonal antibody treatments, which are keeping Americans who get COVID-19 out of hospitals, is hitting Alabama hard, with some sites already running out of or projected to run out of supply soon.

The antibodies are highly successful at stemming the effects of COVID-19, which is caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, when given to patients soon after they contract the disease. But a huge jump in demand in recent weeks has left what some officials have described as a national shortage, triggering the federal government to intervene and start doling out what’s left.

Stringfellow Memorial Hospital in Anniston, Alabama, didn’t have any of the antibodies on the premises on Sept. 15, according to Dr. Almena Free, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer. Other facilities in Jefferson and Huntsville counties were struggling to source enough of the treatment, Dr. David Thrasher, a pulmonary critical care physician in Montgomery, Alabama, said a day later.

“Some entities are very low on product, and some project running out of product over the weekend,” Dr. Karen Landers, a health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health, told The Epoch Times in an email on Sept. 17.

The shortage comes at a time when intensive care unit capacity is “beyond full,” Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama’s health officer, told reporters in a Sept. 16 virtual briefing. That means there are more people in the state that require critical care than there are beds in hospitals.

COVID-19 isn’t entirely to blame for the capacity issues, as many hospitalized patients don’t have the disease, but the monoclonal antibody (mAb) shortage will likely contribute to hospital crowding. About 70 percent of patients who get the treatment soon after their diagnosis don’t need hospital care, according to clinical studies and experts such as Thrasher.

“We were originally told [by the federal government] we were only going to get 70 percent of our allocation. That means 30 percent of people are not being treated, and some of them will die,” he said.

“That is not acceptable. … This is not right, what the federal government’s doing.”

The federal government has dominated the supply of monoclonal antibody treatments from Regeneron and Eli Lilly. Under the model that was in place until early September, hospitals and other facilities could order directly from the Biden administration, which would send doses straight to the health care centers. States didn’t have to worry about costs, because the administration was footing the bill.

The new model has the government rationing the doses, deciding how much to give each state. The change comes as supply dwindles and new production isn’t enough to meet the booming need, according to experts.

The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services have defended the change, saying that it provides for a more “equitable” distribution.

monoclonal-antibodies (1)
A Regeneron monoclonal antibody infusion bag is seen during a news conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, on Aug. 19, 2021. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

“Our role as the government overseeing the entire country is to be equitable in how we distribute. We’re not going to give a greater percentage to Florida over Oklahoma,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Sept. 16.

“Transitioning to a state/territory-coordinated distribution system gives health departments maximum flexibility to get mAbs where they are needed most,” an HHS spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email.

Several options are in play for states that are facing a shortage. They can draw on existing supply, taking doses from sites that have plenty and sending them to others that don’t. Or they can reach out to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a UK-based company that hasn’t sold any of its product to the U.S. government.

Florida is the only state that has started the process of sourcing directly from GSK, according to health officials across the United States. Health officers in some states, such as Mississippi and Arkansas, said they had enough supply and didn’t project being affected by the distribution model switch. Others, such as Texas and Alabama, are being affected, but aren’t pursuing the direct sourcing method.

Some suggested getting antibodies from GSK would prove to be too expensive.

“At this time we have not had any requests for it and it is quite costly,” a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health told The Epoch Times via email.

One course of treatment costs $2,100, a GSK spokesperson told The Epoch Times. That’s the same price per dose in Regeneron’s latest two contracts with the federal government. The cost of Eli Lilly’s product is roughly the same.

The federal government has locked up hundreds of thousands of doses of the Regeneron and Eli Lilly medicines, and GSK’s is the only other monoclonal antibody treatment currently authorized for use in the United States. U.S. drug regulators rejected an application for emergency use authorization for a fourth drug earlier this month.

Michigan and Alabama officials told The Epoch Times that hospitals and other providers can order directly from GSK if they wish. In the meantime, the states, like many others, are scrambling to try to redistribute the supply to make sure there’s enough at each facility.

Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. news and stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is based in Maryland.