Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is downplaying the effectiveness of COVID vaccines while he aggressively pitches antibody treatments around the state.
DeSantis, who has banned schools from imposing mask requirements and issued a ban on vaccine passports, has responded to a massive spike in hospitalizations by rolling out clinics that treat COVID patients with monoclonal antibody treatments from Regeneron.
Although the treatments hold the same "Emergency FDA Authorization" as the vaccines, DeSantis unveiled a new Regeneron clinic in Orlando on Monday where he downplayed the effectiveness of vaccines as the state reported nearly 16,000 hospitalizations. "Our entire vulnerable population has basically been vaccinated," DeSantis claimed. But only about 50% of the state's population is fully vaccinated.
"Even though we've done all the nursing homes, for example, we still see people that are testing positive in the nursing homes," DeSantis said. "So yeah, they're vaccinated. That's great. That was the right thing to do. I do think it reduced for at least a few months the number of infections in nursing homes. But it's not just Florida, you're seeing now more people are testing positive. So then what do you do?"
DeSantis says the answer is Regeneron treatment. As the Associated Press reported on Tuesday, one of DeSantis' top donors has a large financial stake in the success of Regeneron:
Citadel, a Chicago-based hedge fund, has $15.9 million in shares of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin has donated $10.75 million to a political committee that supports DeSantis — $5.75 million in 2018 and $5 million last April.
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Regeneron's antibody treatment was granted emergency use authorization in November after it was used to treat former President Donald Trump when he was hospitalized with Covid last year. Former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson both said they were treated with the drug after testing positive for Covid.
DeSantis said the Trump administration already paid for the treatments being used in the clinics, which can cost up to $6,500. The company said earlier this year that it has already been paid for delivering 1.25 million doses of the treatment, many of which have not been used, but its profits on the year "will be dependent upon acceleration of COVID-19 cases and related drug utilization."
A DeSantis spokeswoman downplayed Citadel's investments in Regeneron by noting its larger investments in vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna.
Still, DeSantis has come under criticism for the curious move.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, criticized DeSantis for moving away from vaccines, saying he is "not a full-blown anti-vaxxer" but "it's like he doesn't want to upset those who don't support the vaccine."
DeSantis "was almost waving a 'mission accomplished' banner a few months ago, and he's now finding himself in a situation where he's trying to normalize the current hospitalization rates by promoting a treatment versus promoting prevention," she told the Orlando Sentinel. "It's more 'when you get sick' versus preventing you from getting sick."
The Biden administration has also increasingly urged the use of antibody treatments, particularly in states where vaccinations have stalled, after the drugs bought up by the Trump administration largely sat on refrigerator shelves. But the White House has stressed that vaccines are the most effective way to prevent serious illness.
"The best strategy to remain protected from the worst of COVID-19 is to get fully vaccinated," Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who heads the White House Covid Equity Task Force, told reporters last week. "But if you get COVID-19 and you're at high risk, I want to assure you about these therapies. The monoclonal antibodies work. They are safe. They're free. They keep people out of the hospital and help keep them alive."
But independent medical experts say the treatment is only a temporary solution.
"This particular monoclonal treatment has been shown to reduce hospitalizations in 70% of the people who have been infected. These antibodies are for short-term success," Dr. Sunil Joshi, the president of the Duval County, Florida Medical Society Foundation, told WJXT. "They will get you through an episode of infection, but they do not provide long-term immunity. That's what the vaccine does."
Kami Kim, an infectious disease specialist at the South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine, said there are simpler ways to counter a rise in Covid rates that DeSantis has dismissed.
"The number one strategy is probably going back to social distancing again and wearing masks," Kim told the Orlando Sentinel. "And obviously, Governor DeSantis has his view on that, which most public health people would not entirely agree with."
Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement to Salon that "monoclonal antibody treatment is proven effective in clinical trials, like the vaccines. They are for 2 different purposes, and are not mutually exclusive. Vaccines prevent serious illness from COVID-19. But if someone who is unvaccinated gets COVID, or a vaccinated person gets a breakthrough infection, those in risk categories with comorbidities should consider getting early treatment with Regeneron. It is safe, effective, and free of charge to all patients in Florida. This should not be a political issue – it's about saving lives."