Spectrum Health expands access to monoclonal antibodies therapy for COVID

·3 min read

Aug. 7—Last year, when then-President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, one of the treatments he used was monoclonal antibodies therapy (mAb).

At the time, the therapy was experimental and mostly unavailable to the wider public. Now, the treatment has been approved for the public, and Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health is working to expand its access.

Somewhat similar to convalescent plasma therapy, mAb involves injecting someone currently experiencing COVID-19 with virus antibodies. These antibodies then get to work and aid in a person's recovery.

However, there is a difference between the two. Convalescent plasma therapy involves injecting one person experiencing COVID-19 with the antibodies from another person who has already recovered; mAb on the other hand uses antibodies that were made in a lab.

"So, when we get in contact with virus, our immune system makes protein that bind and kill the virus," explained Spectrum Health's Dr. Gordana Simeunovic. "Those proteins are called antibodies. Those antibodies are normally made by the human body. We use antibodies in therapy that are man-made.

"When we inject them in the patient, they do the same thing as natural antibodies," she added. "They bind to the virus, kill the virus and help the patient recover faster."

The advantage of using mAb over the plasma therapy is that medical practitioners don't have to rely on others to get the antibodies, and they can also be reassured that the sample they are using has a large number of active antibodies in it.

"When COVID started, there were things out there that was experimental," Simeunovic said. "We were trying everything we could. (The) first therapy based on antibody use was plasma therapy — it was giving some results. But it was very difficult to measure the amount of antibodies in the plasma. Then monoclonal antibodies appeared at the end of the year, it was approved by the FDA by the end of November. It was the first authorization for outpatient use."

Spectrum Health is working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand mAb in West Michigan. Back in March, the HHS announced it was investing $150 million to make the therapy more accessible in underserved areas; Spectrum Health was one of the first health care providers to work toward this goal.

"Now, we are working to expand this further," Simeunovic said. "The monoclonal antibodies are available in all of the emergency departments in our regional hospitals. And we cover a big part of West Michigan."

In addition to having mAb available at regional Spectrum Health emergency rooms, Simeunovic said communicating to the public about this therapy has been a big part of it. In some areas of the state, Spectrum Health has hired translators to get the word out to non-English-speaking people.

What makes mAb so effective is that it gets almost immediate results if it is administered on time. Simeunovic said people should get mAb therapy within 10 days of testing positive for COVID-19.

"Usually, patients start feeling better anywhere between two hours to 72 hours," the doctor said. "I have patients who feel better after an hour after infusion."

The treatment is available at Spectrum Health Grand Haven Center (the former Health Pointe) in Grand Haven Township.

"At our facility, we have had access since early spring, but haven't had the cases," Dr. Joseph Ortiz said. "The cases we did have we did send to local hospitals."

Ortiz said those that were sent off to get the therapy responded positively to it. He stressed that he still recommends people get vaccinated as a first line of defense against COVID-19.

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