The following first appeared in the Buzz political newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.
Earlier this month, DeSantis embarked on a new messaging campaign around the coronavirus: Try Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody drug cocktail.
It’s a mouthful to say and a lot to understand. The push behind it is stirring up some controversy and criticism from DeSantis’ political opponents.
Let’s break down the situation with five things to keep in mind while you read about DeSantis and Regeneron.
1. Monoclonal antibodies have shown promise.
Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail is an injection of two drugs, casirivimab and imdevimab, for infected patients who are at high risk for COVID-19′s worst effects. In granting the drug’s emergency use authorization, the FDA said it can be effective at preventing hospitalization if the drugs are administered early in the disease’s course.
According to a clinical trial cited by the FDA, vulnerable patients given the monoclonal antibody treatment were a third as likely to be hospitalized as similar patients given a placebo.
As Florida cases and hospitalizations have spiked in recent weeks, hospital officials have offered anecdotal evidence of the drug’s benefits. For example, John Couris, the CEO of Tampa General Hospital, has been singing the treatment’s praises for months.
2. The federal government has already bought all of Regeneron’s supply.
In the waning days of the Trump administration, Regeneron agreed to sell its entire stock of monoclonal antibody treatments to the federal government. This was quite lucrative for the company: about 1.25 million doses at $2,100 per dose. Patients are being offered the drugs across the country free of charge, according to Alexandra Bowie, a Regeneron spokesperson.
Florida is now drawing on those doses. As of Wednesday evening, the state had announced five state-supported monoclonal antibody treatment sites, where DeSantis has said patients can come get the treatment without a physician’s referral. The state has requested 7,000 doses from the feds for those sites so far, according to a Department of Health spokesperson. Hospitals will also continue to give out the drug cocktail.
The White House recently said it shipped more than 108,000 doses of monoclonal antibodies to states in July. Bowie said Regeneron has estimated that the federal stockpile may be exhausted by year’s end, though the company should be able to produce more if needed.
3. A company run by a major DeSantis donor holds Regeneron stock. Here’s where the controversy begins.
Billionaire Ken Griffin, who has donated $10.75 million to DeSantis’ political committee over the years, runs a hedge fund that held about $37 million in institutional shares of Regeneron as of June 30, according to Nasdaq. This connection was unearthed then shared by political foes of DeSantis, and also published by the Associated Press in a story heavily criticized by the Republican governor’s team.
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There’s a lot of important context to consider with these numbers, and you can read more here.
DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw pointed out that the hedge fund, Citadel, manages about $35 billion in assets. Citadel also owns more institutional shares in Moderna, one of the companies that produced a coronavirus vaccine, than it does Regeneron, per Nasdaq.
According to DeSantis’ schedule, the governor had a call with Regeneron CEO Dr. Leonard Schleifer on Aug. 4 — the same day he began to promote monoclonal antibodies in earnest alongside Florida hospital officials. Bowie said Schleifer spoke to Desantis about “how monoclonal antibody treatments work and which patients are appropriate to receive treatment.”
4. The state’s push could help ease the burden of hospitals.
DeSantis has said he wants 15 to 20 monoclonal antibody sites across the state that can serve up to 300 patients per day. Given the early numbers from Jacksonville, the first state-run monoclonal antibody clinic, it’s unlikely all of the sites will hit that threshold.
As of Wednesday, Florida’s COVID-19 numbers remained daunting. The state reported 23,335 cases to the CDC on Aug. 17. The Florida Hospital Association reported a record 16,721 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals. More than half of the state’s intensive care unit beds were occupied by people with the coronavirus.
Tom Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida’s department of biology and the Emerging Pathogens Institute, said a widespread treatment campaign could take some pressure off of crowded state hospitals.
”That’s not trivial,” Hladish said. “Every bed that you free up in an ICU when you’re close to capacity, you’re saving people who are injured in car accidents.”
5. But some of DeSantis’ critics wish he would push vaccination as hard as he’s pushing COVID-19 treatments.
For months, DeSantis has said Floridians should get vaccinated. He’s noted that the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 hospital patients in the state are unvaccinated. But instead of touring the state to promote vaccination like he did earlier this year, DeSantis has pushed a COVID-19 treatment in recent weeks.
This is not out of character for DeSantis. He’s been pushing coronavirus treatments the entire pandemic, some more dubious than others. Last April, the state got one million doses of hydroxychloroquine, which DeSantis called a “game-changer.” Hydroxychloroquine did not ultimately live up to the governor’s hype. Last August, the governor held a press conference touting the effects of convalescent plasma, another treatment that turned out to be not as beneficial as some initially hoped.
Still, some Democrats argue DeSantis has let his political ambition get in the way of more aggressively pushing vaccinations. He signed a law banning so-called “vaccine passports,” and famously declined to be publicly jabbed.
“The governor should stop pandering to his anti-vaccine presidential constituency and start protecting Floridians and our economy,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who’s running to unseat DeSantis in 2022, told the Times.