Are the feds subsidizing vaccine hesitancy?

Are the feds subsidizing vaccine hesitancy?
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in August promoting Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment.
(Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel)

Last week, approximately 160,000 doses of Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 were delivered to states at a cost of $2,100 per patient. The federal government––determined to deliver the treatment at no cost to patients––footed the bill. That choice might seem reasonable given the ongoing pandemic, but it’s damaging vaccination campaigns that come at a fraction of the cost.

Why is monoclonal antibody treatment so popular?

Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment reduces the likelihood of death from a COVID-19 infection by about 71%, according to one study. By all accounts, it’s a powerful tool that saves lives.

But, perhaps more importantly, it’s not a vaccine. Vaccines are politicized, but Regeneron’s treatment has been spared the media onslaught. Now, right-wing personalities are leaning into the vaccine hesitancy they helped create by touting monoclonal antibody treatment as an alternative to vaccination. Last month on Fox & Friends Ainsley Earhardt said, “if you don’t get vaccinated and you go to the hospital, most of the time you’re going to get Regeneron. But Regeneron are the antibodies, so you’re basically still getting vaccinated.”

Savvy politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have heavily promoted Regeneron’s treatment while remaining largely mum on vaccines. Since August 1, DeSantis has tweeted 60 times about Regeneron’s treatment, and only once about vaccines. The political benefits of these choices are clear: you can placate people who believe that vaccines are dangerous while showing that you still care about public safety––maybe even more than the Democratic politicians who seem to only ever talk about vaccines. In all, just 7 Southern states account for 70% of orders for the treatment. 

If Regeneron’s treatment were a good substitute for vaccination this wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, it’s not.

When you’re vaccinated, you earn an extended period of robust protection from COVID-19. After Regeneron’s treatment, protection rapidly declines after just weeks. Moreover, unlike with the widely accessible vaccines, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access Regeneron’s treatment. Demand is high and supply is low. The Biden administration is purchasing more doses to catch up, but it’s recently been forced to ration doses going to each state. Some who want the treatment aren’t going to get it. Some will die. 

Meanwhile, the cost of Regeneron’s treatment is astronomical relative to other options. Each Johnson and Johnson shot costs the federal government about $10, while the two-shot Moderna costs $30 and the two-shot Pfizer is about $40. Regeneron’s treatment, on the other hand, costs roughly $2,100 per patient, not including the considerable time and effort it takes to administer four doses intravenously to a likely-already-infected patient. 

None of this would be a problem if the federal government didn’t pay the bill.

When price isn’t a consideration, state politicians can afford to grandstand by claiming there’s something better than vaccination out there and the unvaccinated can eschew the more affordable and effective vaccines. We’re all suffering the consequences.

This policy encourages waste, subsidizes vaccine hesitancy, and worsens treatment of vaccinated people who are now being denied access to Regeneron’s treatment so it can be reserved for the unvaccinated. The federal government has turned incentives on their head and offers clear benefits to resisting vaccination.

If the federal government is willing to mandate vaccines through OSHA, they should have already implemented the considerably less radical policy of making federal subsidies for Regeneron’s treatment conditional on being vaccinated. You can still get Regeneron, you can still get it paid for by fellow taxpayers, but it will only be subsidized if you’ve already taken the vaccine. It could boost vaccination, it would change the incentives for governors, and it would save us a lot of money. The choice is simple.

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Narration: Writing & Policy Associate James Lewis

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