Ron DeSantis embraces a mask-defying, MAGA-made 'cure' for coronavirus

A doctor explains the truth about the Regeneron treatment the governor promotes as he telegraphs to the unvaccinated that they should stay that way

  
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While Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has banned mask and vaccine mandates to prevent Covid-19 infection, he’s been pushing a monoclonal antibody (MAb) treatment that was used to treat Donald Trump during his Covid battle last fall.

But DeSantis has downplayed the narrow eligibility criteria and effectiveness while embracing it as a sort of lockdown-defying, mask-screwing, MAGA-crazed solution to Covid-19, which is exploding in his state.

Who could forget Trump falsely touting MAb as a “cure” in the days after he returned to the White House, defiantly and frighteningly ripping off his mask from the Truman Balcony?

The treatment, developed by the company Regeneron with funding under Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, while experimental when it was administered to Trump, currently is the only MAb that has emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration — though, like the Covid-19 vaccines, it doesn’t have full approval yet. (Eli Lily, the only other company given authorization for an MAb product, lost authorization because its MAb isn’t effective against the delta variant.)

A lot has been written about Regeneron’s connection to one of DeSantis’ biggest political donors, a Trump loyalist of course:

As DeSantis ramps up his reelection bid, the largest donation to his political committee this cycle is a $5 million contribution from Kenneth Griffin, the CEO of hedge fund Citadel, which owns $15.9 million shares in Regeneron, according to a regulatory report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission this week.

Shares of Regeneron have gone through the roof as DeSantis has touted it and the opening of treatment centers in the past two weeks around Florida to administer it. At press conferences — where he mentions vaccines, but then points to how even vaccinated people get infected, seemingly emboldening vaccine resistance — he stands in front of a sign that reads, “Early Treatment Saves Lives.”

But who among those currently becoming infected with Covid-19 in Florida exactly qualifies for MAb, enough to walk into a Florida treatment center and have the antibody cocktail — hundreds of thousands of doses of which were purchased by the Trump administration last fall for $450 million and distributed to the states — infused into their veins for 20 minutes?

Actually, not many people at all.

A caller to my SiriusXM show, Curt from Utah, identified himself as a doctor who has been deeply involved both in the research and administration of MAb. He called in as I was discussing DeSantis’ recent actions. (You can listen to the enlightening call above; at first, we discussed an Alabama doctor who is refusing to see unvaccinated patients, but our discussion about MAb, and both the Florida and Texas governors, begins at about the one minute mark).

After explaining the reality of the treatment, the caller, Dr. Curtis Andersen, an assistant associate medical director and urgent care physician, emailed me a case study article he co-authored on administering MAb over a wide geographic area, which was published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine-Catalyst.

MAb received FDA emergency authorization, he said, after a trial showed that people who received it within seven days of infection who were “high-risk for hospitalization” saw their “hospitalization rate drop from 15% to 4%.”

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As he explained, regarding the treatment in Utah, “If you’re outside of 7 days [of being infected] you’re not qualified and it’s not even offered.” (Florida and other states are offering it within a 10-day window of becoming infected, and the treatment has been federally authorized now for those at high risk of hospitalization who have been exposed but haven’t tested positive yet.)

We have infused just about 1600 people here [in Utah] and we think we’ve saved 150 hospitalizations and probably saved 25 deaths or more.

That’s great. Any treatment that can save lives in this pandemic is powerful. But the fact that you must have the treatment in the early days of infection, and that you only qualify if you are at high-risk of being hospitalized — are over 65, or have underlying conditions, for example — means the treatment is pretty limited. It is not authorized for anyone who’s already been hospitalized either.

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And yet, not only does DeSantis obscure this but Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who went on MAb after he tested positive for Covid-19 last week, hasn’t explained that in any statements, while he’s touted the treatment.

Andersen, reacting to Abbott’s announcement, said:

I’m sure now many people are going to want those — they won’t even qualify. I’ve even heard some people, when they hear a politician say that, say, “Well ,I’ll just get those antibodies anyway. I’ll just lie about my test results, and let me get those so it will protect me.” And that is not science. And we don’t provide any monoclonal antibodies like that.

He added, responding to DeSantis’ press conferences touting the treatment:

It’s embarrassing. It sounds just so uneducated and naive. It’s hard to believe that these are our leaders — their leaders, I should say.

Andersen described how states decide who gets MAb, using a score system. If people are immune-suppressed, have advanced age, are from racial groups that have a higher morbidity and mortality (such as Black, Latino or Native American), there are points that add to a score, which determines if one qualifies:

But the point is this has all been worked out scientifically with the numbers. It’s not political. But these leaders are making it political and trying to use it to their advantage…Unfortunately, I think what’s driving some of this is fundraising. It’s their way of speaking to that Trump base out there.

As Florida now leads the country among younger adults and children with Covid, DeSantis appears to be providing false hope, sending a message that vaccines aren’t necessary because you can simply get this treatment. People may think they can just walk into the treatment centers after testing positive and get an infusion when, as Andersen says, they won’t fit the criteria.

Or, perhaps DeSantis is giving the ultimate middle figure to science and to the federal government.

Perhaps, with a wink and nudge, DeSantis is actually encouraging people to lie in the way Andersen described some people say they will.

I say that because DeSantis had his state surgeon general issue a standing order last week in Florida as he announced the opening of the Regeneron treatment centers, waiving any prescription from a doctor or a referral — which was previously required, and is required in other states — as long as a registered nurse administers the MAb at the treatment center.

“This Standing Order authorizes registered nurses licensed under chapter 464, Florida Statutes…to administer covered medical countermeasures under the PREP Act to provide REGEN-COV…” reads the order.

The nurses, according the order, must “verify that the individual meets the FDA EUA criteria for administration of REGEN-COV.” But, lacking a prescription or referral from a doctor who would know or investigate a patient’s medical history, it seems pretty dubious that any nurse in a makeshift treatment center could fully verify if someone qualifies — and is likely taking the person’s word for it. In that case, the very people Dr. Curt Andersen is talking about could just lie and get the treatment.

Whether that is happening or not, by promoting MAb while downplaying vaccines and virulently attacking masks-wearing and banning mask mandates even in schools, DeSantis is allowing for the continued rapid escalation of the coronavirus pandemic led by the delta variant, in his state and across the entire country.

All of it, for his own political purposes.