Plasma Treatment Project Continues to Grow: An Update from Dr. Paneth

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Kayla Edwards and Ernest Luckett were proud to donate blood at an ELHS drive before the pandemic. Today, blood is needed for emergency treatment and critical research.

Have you had COVID-19 and are now recovered? According to the Ingham County Health Department, East Lansing’s 48823 zip code has seen about 40 cases, and across the county over a hundred individuals have recovered. Those among us who have recovered may provide a key blood component to combating the disease in others.

The immune systems of those infected with COVID-19 produce antibodies to kill the virus. These antibodies will remain in a person’s blood for years (possibly even for life) following the infection. Via blood donation, those antibodies can be collected from a recovered person and be given to a sick person who needs help fighting the disease.

As ELi previously reported, MSU physician and epidemiologist Nigel Paneth is working with a collective of doctors and scientists who have formed the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project to facilitate using antibodies of those recovered from the disease to treat those still suffering.

Paneth reported to ELi that, as of last week, over eight thousand individuals nationally have registered to donate their antibodies through blood plasma donation.

One challenge the project faces is that it can be hard to know who has had the disease. Some prospective donors never received a test to confirm that they have COVID-19. They may have lived with someone who had the disease and felt sick themselves. Due to previous shortages of tests, they may have been told to act as though they have COVID-19. Others who received a positive test result may feel recovered but still be carrying the live virus.

For plasma donation, all would-be donors undergo two tests – one to ensure that they have no traces of the live virus in their blood and another to make sure that they have produced antibodies. (Those who turn up negative on both – that is, those who turn out not to have contracted the virus – can still donate their life-saving blood or plasma.)

The good news is that almost all people who actually contracted COVID-19 have robust antibodies to donate. According to Paneth, donating antibodies does not deplete your own store. As your blood cells naturally continue to reproduce, so will the antibodies.

Gary Caldwell for ELi.

Nigel Paneth, MSU physician and epidemiologist, who is working on plasma treatments and research.

Hospitals and blood centers across the United States have started plasma collection services to take antibodies from the recovered to give to those who have fallen ill with the disease. Paneth said that those living in an area without a sponsored program can find out where to donate by visiting the National COVID-10 Convalescent Plasma Project’s website. There, recovered patients can register with the project, and organizers can connect those registered with opportunities to donate their plasma.

In some parts of the country, community organization has been important. Paneth reported that the Orthodox Jewish community in New Rochelle, New York – the original epicenter in that state’s outbreak in early March – is now recovering from the disease and people there are signing up in droves to donate their antibodies.

The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project also links people to services to those currently suffering from the disease. On March 25, the FDA began allowing the use of antibodies as a compassionate use treatment. This means donated antibodies can be given to severely ill patients who are at high risk of death. This month, the FDA certified expanded access to antibodies. Those who are seriously ill or at risk of becoming seriously ill can now receive the treatment. This expanded access program requires registering the treated patient at a website hosted by the Mayo Clinic. It appears that, as of last week, more than a thousand convalescent plasma treatments have been given nationwide.

Randomized clinical trials are under way to determine the safety and efficacy of the treatment. When ELi spoke to Paneth last week, only one clinical trial had been approved, but that number has now grown to at least four.

Approved clinical trials include treatment for emergency room patients, hospitalized patients, at-risk children, and adults exposed to COVID-19. Paneth and his colleagues are working to put those looking to participate in trials in contact with organizers.

Randomized clinical control trials consist of two groups: one that receives treatment and a control group that does not. Paneth points out that while some might question denying one group treatment, the reality is that many patients across the United States are not receiving treatment with or without the clinical trials. It is better to carefully study the treatment to learn when and how to give it, and make sure there are no serious side effects before it is used more widely..

Currently, no clinical trials or large-scale donation programs are under way in our area’s hospitals, but Paneth encourages those interested in donation or treatment to reach out. Local hospitals or blood banks may still take convalescent plasma, and perhaps as more people recover, a local project here might emerge.

Reminder: The State of Michigan has expanded testing and now even people with mild symptoms can get tested. Read more here.

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