Three days after the office of Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was receiving monoclonal antibody treatment for his own COVID-19 diagnosis, a state-funded infusion center opened its doors in Fort Worth. 

The Regional Infusion Center is one of six centers run by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Dozens of other hospitals and clinics across the state, as well as centers run by the Texas Division of Emergency Management, also provide the treatment. 

The purpose of the treatment is two-fold, according to Meenakshi Ramanathan, an infectious diseases clinical pharmacist in Tarrant County: decrease viral load, or the amount of virus in a person’s body, and slow hospitalizations.

The pop-up center opened amid a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations that echoes the surge this past winter. As of this weekend, a person with COVID-19 occupies about one in four hospital beds across Tarrant County.

Here’s what we know about monoclonal antibody treatment and how it could help keep hospitalizations down.

What is monoclonal antibody therapy?

Monoclonal antibody therapy is a treatment for people who are just getting sick. It speeds up the body’s own defenses against threats like viruses to stave off serious illness.

Meenakshi Ramanathan, an infectious diseases clinical pharmacist, pronounces “monoclonal antibody.”

Specifically, the treatment infuses people with antibodies, proteins within the body’s immune system that identify and neutralize particles that don’t belong. The body produces antibodies on its own — it just takes longer. It’s the difference between growing vegetables in your own garden and having them delivered to your door.

The therapy treats people with a mild to moderate case of COVID-19, as well as people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19. The FDA authorized it for emergency use back in November 2020. Since then, the FDA has authorized multiple versions of antibody treatment for emergency use. The treatment is not a substitute for the vaccine, according to the FDA. 

The Regional Infusion Center uses the treatment by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which uses two types of monoclonal antibodies: casirivimab and imdevimab. Abbott and former President Donald Trump have both received Regeneron’s treatment, which protects against the four main variants in the U.S., including delta, Ramanathan said. 

How does it work?

In a lab, researchers take a white blood cell and expose it to the coronavirus. The cell will recognize the virus particle as a threat and, in response, “create the same antibody over and over and over again — that’s why it’s called monoclonal antibody,” Ramanathan said. 

When a person receives the treatment, they’re receiving an infusion of those laboratory-made antibodies so the body “doesn’t have to rev up and make antibodies itself,” she said. 

On a cellular level, an antibody connects to the virus particle’s spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its crown-like appearance. In doing so, the antibody prevents the virus from attaching to a person’s cells. The immune system then attacks the free-floating coronavirus particles, Ramanathan said. 

For patients at the Regional Infusion Center, the one-time treatment typically requires an IV and lasts about an hour, according to Evy Ramos, a spokesperson for BCFS Health and Humans Services Emergency Management Division, which partners with the state to operate the centers. Then, the patient waits at the center for one more hour to make sure they don’t react poorly to the treatment. 

Who is eligible for treatment at the Regional Infusion Center in Fort Worth?

A person who is:

  • 18 years or older
  • COVID-19 positive
  • Symptomatic for fewer than 10 days
  • Not hospitalized or on oxygen because of COVID-19

AND at least one of the following:

  • 65 years or older
  • Obese or overweight
  • Pregnant
  • Immunocompromised
  • Diabetic
  • From a high-risk community like Black or Hispanic

For the full list of criteria, click here.

How can someone access treatment at the Regional Infusion Center?

The treatment is free, and it’s not just available to people like Abbott and Trump. However, patients must be referred by a physician to receive it.

To be eligible for a referral to the Regional Infusion Center, a person with COVID-19 needs to be at least 18 years old and have an existing health complication like obesity, asthma or pregnancy, or be part of a community with high risk for severe COVID-19 illness. Furthermore, they can’t be hospitalized or on oxygen because of COVID-19. 

The FDA’s criteria for the treatment is looser. People with COVID-19 or recently exposed to COVID-19 can receive the treatment if they’re 12 or older and weigh about 90 pounds or more, Ramanathan said. They, too, must be high risk and not hospitalized or on oxygen.

The Regional Infusion Center in Fort Worth can treat 90 patients a day. The center had treated 40 people through Monday, according to Douglas Loveday, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

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