What Is Monoclonal Antibody Therapy for COVID-19?
Medically Reviewed by Briony Jain, PhD in Public Health
For decades, doctors have used monoclonal antibody therapy to treat diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, some types of cancer and some infections like Ebola. More recently, you may have heard of monoclonal antibody therapy as a treatment for COVID-19.
Your body’s immune system responds to harmful germs by creating antibodies to fight them off. Lab-based monoclonal antibodies work to mimic and enhance this immune response. Read on for answers to common questions about monoclonal antibody therapy as a treatment for COVID-19.
What Are Antibodies?
To understand how monoclonal antibody therapy works, you first need to know about antibodies. Antibodies are special proteins your body creates to fight infections like COVID-19.
Antibodies are Y-shaped, with the two tips of the Y designed to recognize and bind with specific antigens — harmful cells like viruses or bacteria. When these harmful cells enter your body, your immune system releases antibodies to seek them out. Each antibody is designed to fit and bind to one specific antigen, like a lock and key. Once it attaches to an antigen, it either destroys it or tags it so other cells can recognize and destroy it.
The body’s natural immune system is incredibly complex and clever. But sometimes it needs extra help to recognize or fight intruders like viruses or bacteria. This is where modern medicine comes in with treatments like vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapy. These treatments help train your immune system to protect itself against specific diseases.
What Is Monoclonal Antibody Therapy?
So, what exactly are monoclonal antibodies and how do they work? To create monoclonal antibodies, scientists expose a white blood cell to a particular viral protein. This makes the cell produce antibodies against that particular virus. They can then mass-produce the antibodies.
Monoclonal antibodies are very specific to their intended targets, so a treatment for one virus (like measles) would have no effect on another virus (like COVID-19). That’s why monoclonal antibodies are sometimes called “magic bullets” — they can deliver treatments directly to the infected cells in the human body, while leaving other cells unharmed.
How Does Monoclonal Antibody Therapy Work for COVID-19?
There are now several monoclonal antibody therapies for COVID-19. Most work by binding to the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19. This prevents the virus from attaching to and entering human cells. They also tag the virus molecules so that other immune cells can later recognize and destroy them.
Monoclonal antibodies are usually only available to people at higher risk of serious illness, like older adults or people with immune disorders. Experts say that monoclonal antibody treatment needs to start as early as possible after a positive COVID-19 test, within about a week of the first symptoms. You take monoclonal antibodies as an intravenous (IV) infusion.
Some monoclonal antibody therapies are less effective against certain variants of the novel coronavirus. But researchers are working to develop new monoclonal antibody therapies to treat COVID-19.
What Are the Risks and Side Effects of Monoclonal Antibodies?
Like all medical treatments, monoclonal antibodies come with both risks and benefits. It’s important to talk with your doctor about the risks and decide if this therapy is right for you.
Side effects may vary depending on the specific monoclonal antibody therapy, but the most common tend to be injection site reactions like skin redness. Additional side effects include rashes, diarrhea and rare allergic reactions. Experts don’t currently recommend monoclonal antibodies for people who are already hospitalized with severe COVID-19, because the risks may outweigh the benefits for this group.
I Just Tested Positive for COVID-19. How Do I Get Monoclonal Antibody Therapy?
Chances are you may not need it. You can only get this treatment after talking with a doctor about the risks and benefits for you. Doctors use a set of criteria to determine whether you need monoclonal antibody therapy or not. If you recently tested positive for COVID-19 and you’re at risk for severe illness, talk with your doctor about your treatment options.
If your doctor decides monoclonal antibodies are right for you, you may be able to get the treatment at a hospital, urgent care center or doctor’s office. You can use online tools from the National Infusion Center Association or the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to help you find a nearby site that offers these treatments.
How Much Does Monoclonal Antibody Therapy Cost?
A dose of monoclonal antibodies can cost several thousand dollars, but the federal government currently costs for some of the treatments. Clinics may still charge you for the costs of administering the therapy. These costs may be covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance, but it’s always a good idea to ask your insurance company in advance how much the treatment will cost.
What’s the Difference Between Monoclonal Antibody Therapy and COVID-19 Vaccines?
Monoclonal antibody therapy is not a substitute for vaccines. Monoclonal antibodies can help your immune system fight COVID-19, but only after you’ve already gotten sick with the virus. And the effects of these antibodies may only last a few months — so they won’t necessarily protected your from catching the virus again or spreading it to other people.
COVID-19 vaccines, on the other hand, prepare your immune system before you come in contact with the virus. That way your body is ready and able to fight the infection. Vaccines can help prevent an infection in the first place — and if you do get sick, they drastically lower your risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19.
COVID-19 vaccines do need additional “booster” shots to provide continued protection. But compared to monoclonal antibody therapy, vaccines are easier to administer, cheaper, more widely available and longer-lasting. Unlike monoclonal antibodies, they can prevent future infections — and as they always say, prevention is better than cure!
So don’t rely on the availability of monoclonal antibodies to protect you from COVID-19. The best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated right away.