With few tools in their medical kit, doctors are turning to an old idea for treating COVID-19: using plasma from recovered patients to treat patients infected with the coronavirus.
To facilitate that approach, a consortium of 50 hospitals and universities have created the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. This week, the Project launched a website for patients, health care providers and potential donors. The idea is to provide "one-stop shopping" for people interested in getting information about using the approach.
The idea is fairly straightforward: patients who have recovered from the virus must have mounted a robust immune response to the infection. Sharing the antibodies from that immune response that linger in their plasma could help others recover.
The approach has been around since the 1890s. More recently it has been used to treat SARS and Ebola. In a recent article, Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Liise-anne Pirofski of Albert Einstein Medical College championed the approach as a treatment for COVID-19. A small study in China has already suggested the approach might be helpful.
The Plasma Project website is being hosted by Michigan State University. MSU's Nigel Paneth spearheads the project. He says he didn't plan to run a website. He wrote some background material for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that led to an endorsement of exploring the benefits of convalescent plasma.
"And the next thing I know Amazon Web Services is contacting me," Paneth says, offering to help build a website. "I did very little except say, 'OK.' " The Amazon team partnered with Michigan State Information Technologies to create the final product.
"We have 1,200 donors who are listed on our website," Paneth says. "We're sending them information about the places they can go to."
On March 24, the Food and Drug Administration released guidance making it possible for doctors to give convalescent plasma to patients on an emergency use basis for severely ill patients.
But Paneth thinks it's unlikely that using the plasma when patients are in extremis will be very helpful. He says experience shows it is "best to give [it] in the first few days of illness." In fact, researchers at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins are launching a study to see if the plasma can prevent disease altogether in people merely exposed to the virus.
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