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How Recovered COVID-19 Patients May Be Able to Help Those Currently Ill

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Right now, there is no known treatment for COVID-19, the new-to-humans coronavirus that causes respiratory infection. Doctors are using supportive care, and in serious cases must rely on oxygen, ventilators and experimental medications to help patients recover.

Experts around the world are racing to find potential treatment and vaccination options, which in some cases has led to shortages in medications for people with chronic illnesses. Among the many treatment options currently under investigation for COVID-19, from antiviral medications to blood clot-preventing medication, is an old treatment method called convalescent plasma therapy. More research is needed, but some experts are hopeful this treatment might be a game-changer for some COVID-19 patients.

What Is Convalescent Plasma?

Convalescent plasma therapy uses COVID-19 antibodies from someone recovered from the virus. These antibodies are transferred via transfusion to someone fighting off the virus.

Blood plasma is a whitish-yellow liquid that carries your blood cells and other important nutrients, hormones and proteins around your body. This includes antibodies (or immunoglobulin), a protein designed to help your immune system combat bacteria and viruses. After you recover from an illness, you keep the antibodies used to fight that virus on file in your immune system.

The goal of convalescent plasma therapy is for the antibodies from a recovered individual to help neutralize the virus in the person who is still sick so they can recover. There are still more questions than answers about how this could work for COVID-19 patients, such as the right time to start this therapy in sick patients.

Will Convalescent Plasma Work for COVID-19?

Early experimental treatment with plasma from recovered patients showed promise in small studies and case reports. A preliminary report published in JAMA found that five patients in China who were seriously ill and on ventilators improved after plasma transfusions. They were also taking other antiviral medications at the time of plasma therapy. Three of the patients were discharged at the time of the report, while the other two were in stable condition.

Treatment using antibodies from the blood of recovered patients has been used for other viruses as well as far back as the late 1800s. In the case of COVID-19, experts have yet to work out many of the details. Convalescent plasma therapy has been used to treat other serious respiratory viruses, including the H1N1 flu, MERS and SARS. Mighty contributor Kate Mazzarella, who faced a life-threatening Epstein-Barr virus infection, said it was plasma treatments that finally helped her condition.

“Two and a half weeks into my hospital stay, my condition was not improving,” wrote Mazzarella, adding:

The turning point came when my specialist started me on infusions of intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), a lifesaving treatment that pools the plasma and antibodies from healthy donors’ blood to help the immune system fight off infections.

How You Can Help

On March 24, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved plasma as an emergency investigational drug so doctors can apply to use this treatment for COVID-19 patients. Researchers are also beginning to enroll patients in clinical trials to study convalescent plasma therapy more formally. The challenge, however, is finding plasma donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and have been symptom-free for at least two weeks.

If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 and want to help by donating plasma, you can learn more on the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project’s website, including what to expect and where you can donate. The Red Cross has also established a program for potential donors to sign up.

Concerned about coronavirus? Stay informed with these articles:

Header image via sudok1/Getty Images

Originally published: April 1, 2020
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