New York City is currently the largest center of COVID-19 cases in the country and an effective vaccine or antiviral treatment is still an unknown distance away, over the horizon. But give New York credit for at least trying to be creative and come up with solutions to save its citizens. Doctors here are preparing to attempt a different sort of medical technology to combat the virus, but it’s not some sort of new breakthrough. In fact, it’s a method that dates back to some of the earliest years of modern medicine.
Instead of waiting for a vaccine, doctors will be attempting to extract blood plasma from patients who have already recovered from the disease and provide a transfusion to current patients battling the coronavirus. Presumably, they will have developed antibodies providing not only immunity but an increased ability to fight off the live virus in their systems. It’s been used to combat other illnesses in earlier times and there’s no reason to think it won’t work now. (NBC News)
Hoping to stem the toll of the state’s surging coronavirus outbreak, New York health officials plan to begin collecting plasma from people who have recovered and injecting the antibody-rich fluid into patients still fighting the virus.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the plans during a news briefing Monday. The treatment, known as convalescent plasma, dates back centuries and was used during the flu epidemic of 1918 — in an era before modern vaccines and antiviral drugs.
Some experts say the treatment, although somewhat primitive, might be the best hope for combating the new coronavirus until more sophisticated therapies can be developed, which could take several months.
You can read a good summary of the use of convalescent plasma here, published in 2015. This technique was used in a number of locations in Africa during the last Ebola outbreak and it was also used in Asia when we were dealing with SARS. The results were nearly 100% in terms of success rates, provided you could find a source for the plasma and get it into the new patients before they deteriorated too far.
Of course, as the study notes, there are challenges associated with the use of convalescent plasma which led to the practice being largely abandoned in the United States in recent decades. It’s not that the procedure is dangerous (when done correctly) or ineffective. It absolutely works. But the biggest issue is obtaining enough volume of the plasma to treat all of the people in need during a major outbreak like the one we’re currently experiencing.
You see, you can’t just take a sample of the plasma from one person and reproduce it on a massive scale. Every ounce has to be made from blood extracted from a willing survivor of the disease which is then put through a process known as plasmapheresis. And you need a reasonable amount of it for the treatment to be effective. So that means you’re talking about one blood donor visit being able to potentially save one infected person.
Also, you have to be able to screen out people with other infectious diseases. Saving somebody suffering from COVID-19 by giving them blood plasma from someone who is HIV positive is obviously not a viable solution. So how many coronavirus survivors without other, complicating health issues are there in New York at the moment? How many of them will be willing to leave their homes and go to a potentially crowded hospital or lab setting to donate the blood?
I’m not trying to trash this plan or suggest they shouldn’t try. It will almost certainly help at least some people until we have a proven vaccine or effective antiviral medication available. But until we have a lot more survivors than current patients, this isn’t going to be the global panacea that we’re all hoping for. With that said, I applaud New York’s medical community for thinking outside the box and at least trying to save more folks. Assuming this works well, the results should be shared with the rest of the world. If we ever get to the point where there is more plasma available than patients in need, the plasma could, in theory, be used on healthy people to provide them with immunity in lieu of an actual vaccine.