University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee partnered with the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project and local blood centers to start a convalescent plasma treatment clinic, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
The goal is to use plasma rich in antibodies from the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients as a treatment for active COVID-19 patients in hospitals. According to the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, people who have recovered from COVID-19 may produce antibodies to protect them from becoming reinfected with the virus.
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According to Senior Medical Director at Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin in Milwaukee Dr. Jerry Gottschall, in an apheresis blood donation, the blood extracted from the donor gets separated into two components — a plasma component and the red blood cells.
The red blood cells are then returned to the donor while the plasma is stored within the machine. This plasma can then be transported to clinical sites and transfused to active COVID-19 patients to attempt to have those antibodies treat and prevent the disease in the recipient.
“This use of convalescent plasma has been used in a number of diseases in the past,” Dr. Gottschall said.
Gottschall also pointed out how convalescent plasma therapy was tried as treatment methods for patients with SARS, MERS, influenza and ebola. SARS and MERS are also caused by coronaviruses. Versiti Blood Center is participating in the study of recovered COVID-19 patient’s plasma and are providing it to local clinical sites, such as Froedert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
There are many guidelines for those who wish to donate plasma. According to the Food and Drug Administration, some of these requirements include blood donor eligibility along with either being 28 days symptom-free or being symptom-free for 14 days with negative test results for COVID-19. But, once a person is approved by the FDA guidelines, they are allowed to donate multiple times.
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Dr. Cedric Francois is the CEO of Apellis Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company based in Waltham, Massachusetts. After feeling symptoms of general malaise, muscle aches and hypesthesia in early March, he was able to be tested for COVID-19 at a local hospital.
Francois tested positive for COVID-19 in early March and is now in the process of attempting to donate plasma to be used for clinical trials with active patients. Francois has also taken to social media to express his willingness to donate plasma and to encourage other survivors to do so as well.
“Convalescent plasma is really available right now from recovered patients like myself, and it’s something that is generally safe to do,” Francois said. “Through a local hospital I got confirmed that I had antibodies, and I got confirmed that I no longer had an ongoing infection.”
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The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project was started at Johns Hopkins University and now encompasses the work of around 57 different institutions across the United States.
According to the organization’s website, the hope is that studies will show this treatment having success in either treating currently hospitalized patients or being able to help people who have been exposed to an active patient who has not experienced symptoms.
The FDA launched the national effort for the evaluation of convalescent plasma treatment in the context of clinical trials and an expanded access program for active COVID-19 patients April 3. UW Health has now reported that they have already done their first transfusion of plasma to an active coronavirus patient.
“This is not a proven therapy,” Gottschall said. “But it is hopeful that it will be valuable and beneficial to patients.”
Since the coronavirus is novel, there are no approved drugs to treat COVID-19. There are also no currently available vaccines to prevent COVID-19, as stated by the FDA.
Several clinical trials are underway to treat COVID-19 patients with new vaccines or new antiviral drugs, such as the drug remdesivir from the biotechnology company, Gilead. The results of those studies are not yet available and any vaccines or drugs that are successful in those studies may not be widely available soon enough to help the patients who are sick today.
According to the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, the main reason for plasma research is its accessibility. Plasma exists in all humans, so as long as enough recovered people are willing to donate, convalescent plasma can be accessible to doctors for patient use today.
“It is the shortest-term therapy available,” Francois said. “Based on the available literature, it shows great promise, and it’s something we can access right away.”