Can blood from COVID-19 survivors treat the newly ill?
Hospitals are gearing up to test if a century-old treatment used to fight off flu and measles outbreaks in the days before vaccines, and tried more recently against SARS and Ebola, just might work for COVID-19, too: using blood donated from patients who’ve recovered.
Doctors in China attempted the first COVID-19 treatments using what the history books call “convalescent serum” – today, known as donated plasma – from survivors of the new virus.
Now a network of US hospitals is waiting on permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin large studies of the infusions both as a possible treatment for the sick and as vaccine-like temporary protection for people at high risk of infection.
There’s no guarantee it will work.
“We won’t know until we do it, but the historical evidence is encouraging,” Dr Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health told The Associated Press.
Casadevall drew on that history in filing the FDA application. The FDA is “working expeditiously to facilitate the development and availability of convalescent plasma” a spokesman said.
Blood banks take plasma donations much like they take donations of whole blood; regular plasma is used in hospitals and emergency rooms every day. If someone’s donating only plasma, their blood is drawn through a tube, the plasma is separated and the rest infused back into the donor’s body. Then that plasma is tested and purified to be sure it doesn’t harbour any blood-borne viruses and is safe to use.
For COVID-19 research, the difference would be who does the donating – people who have recovered from the coronavirus. Scientists would measure how many antibodies are in a unit of donated plasma – tests just now being developed that aren’t available to the general public – as they figure out what’s a good dose, and how often a survivor could donate.
Researchers aren’t worried about finding volunteer donors but caution it will take some time to build up a stock.
“I get multiple emails a day from people saying, ‘Can I help, can I give my plasma?’” Pirofski said.