WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 U.S. 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 said.
It may sound like “back to the Stone Age,” but there’s good scientific reason to try using survivors’ blood, said Dr. Jeffrey Henderson of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Henderson coauthored the FDA application with Casadevall and another colleague at the Mayo Clinic.
When a person gets infected by a particular germ, the body starts making specially designed proteins called antibodies to fight the infection. After the person recovers, those antibodies float in the survivor’s blood – specifically plasma, the liquid part of blood — for months, even years.
One of the planned studies would test if giving infusions of survivors’ antibody-rich plasma to newly ill COVID-19 patients would boost their own body’s attempts to fight off the virus. To see if it works, researchers would measure if the treatment gave patients a better chance of living or reduced the need for breathing machines.
One caution: While regular plasma transfusions are a mainstay of medicine, very rarely they can cause a lung-damaging side effect.
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 harbor 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.
Researchers aren’t worried about finding volunteer donors but caution it will take some time to build up a stock.