Plasma treatment: Fighting COVID-19 with “other people’s troops”

There is no cure for COVID-19, but health care professionals are working to find ways to help patients fight it.

Last week a new treatment received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency approval, and it relies on members of the community stepping up to help.

This treatment uses the plasma of those that recovered from COVID-19 to help the most ill patients fight this disease by giving them an antibody serum via transfusion. This is one of the most promising treatments currently available said Dr. Peter Jennings, Chief Medical Officer for Ascension Sacred Heart.

“Theoretically, it makes a lot of sense to give already developed antibodies to a sick person to ramp up their own immune system,” Jennings said.

And in practice, it appears to be working with donated plasma already going to sick individuals. This method of treatment is nothing new and was common in the early 1900s to combat illnesses such as mumps, rubella and chicken pox Jennings said. Vaccines largely replaced the practice, but the science is sound.

When the human body is infected with a virus, the person’s immune system fights to kill the virus, developing antibodies specific to that illness. Jennings described it as troops training. Once a person’s “troops” train up on how to fight a specific virus, they kill it, and the person becomes healthy again.

Vaccines work by giving the body a “dummy” version of the virus to train antibody troops to fight without having to get sick. Then the person will not get sick from that virus because they already have the right antibodies.

plasma

COVID-19 convalescent plasma donation, courtesy of OneBlood

For people with weaker immune systems—such as those with existing health conditions, the elderly or the very young—their “troops” have a harder time learning to fight a virus.

We do not yet have a vaccine for COVID-19; however, COVID-19 convalescent plasma can be used similarly to a vaccine to help a sick person fight back. A plasma donation can be used to make a serum of antibodies to be given to the sick person via IV.

“This uses other people’s troops to help fight the virus,” Jennings said.

Along with the drug hydroxychloroquine, Jennings said this treatment is among the most promising for helping hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Plasma treatment is only allowed by the FDA for those with severe symptoms, those either intubated or soon to be intubated.

As deaths in Florida continue to climb, this treatment could save lives, but it depends on the actions of others. Nonprofit OneBlood is working to collect COVID-19 convalescent plasma from donors across the state including in northwest Florida. They took their first donation from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and already others have stepped forward to donate. In some cases, plasma is going to patients within 24 hours of the donation according to OneBlood.

“Hospitals are eager to use this therapeutic treatment. OneBlood has the ability to help during an unprecedented time, and our team is working around the clock to meet the growing demand for COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” said Susan Forbes, senior vice president of corporate communications and public relations at OneBlood, in a press release.

But that work runs into a challenge, especially in areas like northwest Florida. Though more than 390 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Florida’s four western most counties, very few of those patients may meet the requirements to donate.

To give COVID-19 convalescent plasma an individual must have:

  • Tested positive for COVID-19 in the past
  • Been symptom free for at least 14 days
  • Test negative for COVID-19
  • Met all FDA requirements for blood donation
  • With the bulk of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties’ testing not beginning until March 16 or later, few people yet meet these criteria because not enough time has passed. The donor must also have the same blood type as the patient in need.

But Jennings said he is hopeful those who can help will. The hospital system has begun reaching out to individuals that may be eligible. He said ideally, they would be able to create a bank of COVID-19 convalescent plasma in every blood type.

“We need to work together in the community. If you’ve had COVID, consider donating plasma to help treat the most severely ill patients,” Jennings said.

Donating takes about 30 minutes. Those who would like to donate and believe they may be eligible are urged to go to OneBlood’s website, OneBlood.org. There they will fill out a form to determine eligibility. Those who meet requirements will be contacted to coordinate a donation. And they could save a life.

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