Could Plasma Help Treat COVID-19?

One of the keys to treating COVID-19 could be in the blood on those who have already recovered from the potentially deadly viral infection.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center is leading a clinical trial where hospitalized patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 will receive plasma from people that have recovered.

Dr. Gailen Marshall, R. Faser Triplett Sr. M.D. Chair of Allergy and Immunology at UMMC, is leading the study.

During an infection, the human body makes antibodies that work to neutralize the effect of the invading bacteria or virus, he said. These antibodies stay in the person’s blood plasma after they have beat the infection.

“The majority of people infected with this novel coronavirus recover fully, and these individuals will almost always possess a robust antibody response,” he said. “Our trial seeks to learn if people with severe COVID-19 could benefit from an infusion of these antibodies.”

UMMC needs two kinds of research volunteers for this study: current hospitalized COVID-19 patients and people who have recovered. For the latter group, Marshall and his colleagues will screen volunteers with a documented COVID-19 diagnosis – “people who received a nasal swab test and tested positive for the virus,” he said.

To screen potential plasma donors, a research nurse will draw a small blood sample in order to measure COVID-19 specific antibodies and determine if they are present at a high enough concentration. If a volunteer meets all of the study participation requirements, they will be asked to donate plasma at Mississippi Blood Services for the study. Plasma can be banked for one year, Marshall said, which is good news because there will likely be new COVID-19 infections in Mississippi for several months.

UMMC’s trial is one of dozens worldwide testing the safety and efficacy of plasma in treating COVID-19. Physicians have used convalescent plasma and its antibodies for more than a century to prevent and treat infectious diseases including influenza, diphtheria, and measles before vaccines were available. This technique, which passes passive immunity to the patient, can cause a positive immune response relatively quickly, Marshall said.

Marshall notes that the current COVID-19 patients who receive the plasma will also continue to receive the standard of care for the disease. This includes hospitalization and, if needed, supplemental oxygen or ventilation to manage the severe disease. However, there are no Food and Drug and Administration-approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19. Clinical research is necessary to remedy this, Marshall said.

“We know that COVID-19 is likely to return in some form or another,” he said. “The purpose of clinical trials like this one is to help us prepare so that we can have more knowledge, treat people more quickly, prevent severe disease and decrease the number of deaths during a future outbreak.”

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