COVID-19 Plasma Therapy Study Taking Off

May 13, 2020

Credit Department of Defense

Ascension Sacred Heart is now providing plasma therapy treatment for the coronavirus at its Pensacola and Emerald Coast locations. The treatment is being offered as part of a national research study, which is ramping up as more plasma donations come in.

“We’re part of a large research study with the Mayo Clinic and the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) to look at convalescent plasma and to see if it’s got utility,” said Dr. Peter Jennings, chief medical officer of Ascension Sacred Heart.

He says Ascension doctors have initiated the use of this treatment for COVID-19 that takes plasma from people who have recovered from the viral infection and infuses their antibody-rich plasma into very sick patients who are fighting the virus.

As a reminder, Jennings says this medical strategy isn’t new. It was first used in the early 1900’s to fight infections such as measles and mumps and in recent decades for SARS, HINI, and MERS.

“They would take the blood from the individual that recently recovered from that and give the plasma to another individual to help them fight infection, with the hopes that that antibody- that’s still in that post-infected person’s blood - can help the person fighting that infection.”

Plasma is a part of the blood that includes those infection-fighting antibodies.

To date, convalescent plasma has shown significant potential for coronavirus patients.

In looking for plasma donors, Dr. Jennings says one of the most important criteria is to have had coronavirus, but now with a documented negative test and symptom free for at least 28 days.

“Another one of the criteria are, if you think you had COVID-19 to do an antibody test and that is now available,” Jennings said. “The IgG test is now available and we do have that available within our facility.

To help identify recovered patients and increase the number of plasma donors, Ascension Sacred Heart is working with OneBlood.

Pat Michaels, director of communications for OneBlood, says building the database is getting easier, “When we first announced this just a month ago, we had the very first convalescent plasma donor down in Miami, the mayor of Miami, Suarez.”

“You know what we wanted to do was just set the example and let people know that once your fight with COVID-19 is over, your obligation to help other people begins,” said Mayor Francis Suarez.

His donation sparked a flood of contributions, even from people who’d never given blood before, with little need for solicitation.

For OneBlood, the resulting increase has changed their plasma collection and distribution.

“In the beginning, we had people connecting with others because we had very few donations; we had hospitals asking for very specific blood types,” Michaels explained. 

“Now, we’re getting to the point where hundreds of people are coming in and that’s a good thing.  And, now we’re getting a larger pool of donors who have the antibodies in our system to help out with patients. So, it’s no longer the one-to-one directed-donation process.”

Instead, it’s now more like the regular blood donation process, where donors are showing up to make a donation to “pay it forward,” with no idea of who it will be going to.

According to Michaels, just a month into the study and the call for plasma donations, this particular track has emerged as a new and much-different operation that will likely continue for some time.

“Because of the need for this, we are now moving resources, people/employees, new operational changes, new testing procedures,” said Michaels. “It’s been quite a revolutionary change, but something that’s very necessary and something vital to helping people get over severe symptoms. “

“We’re taking you behind the scenes of OneBlood to show you the massive coordinated effort taking place around the clock to collect, test and distribute COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” said Susan Forbes, OneBlood senior vice president of corporate communications, in an informational video available at oneblood.org/plasma.

It is on OneBlood’s website where people who’ve recovered from coronavirus submit their information to see if they qualify to be a convalescent plasma donor. If approved, they’re scheduled for an appointment.

The video continues with the next steps in the process, “As soon as the donor is finished donating, their donation is packed up and rushed by a OneBlood courier and arrives here at our OneBlood Biologics Lab. It’s checked in and immediately handed off to a person who prepares the donation for processing.”

There are two donation methods, either through an automated process, where only the plasma is collected or by donating whole blood, where all the components of the donor’s blood are collected (including red blood cells and platelets).  After initial processing, more than a dozen tests are required to ensure the donation is safe. Once the testing is complete.

“The plasma is quickly labeled packed up and handed directly to a OneBlood courier who rushes the convalescent plasma to the hospital,” proclaims Forbes in the video.

“I would say this convalescent plasma is very similar to a poor man’s vaccine,” said Ascension’s Dr. Jennings with a chuckle.

Sacred Heart is one of many hospitals now participating in the clinical trial and offering the treatment as a help sick people build immunity against the virus.

Jennings says he’s excited about the potential of plasma therapy to save lives, noting some positive preliminary results.

Long-term, he says the study will help scientists find out how much immunity people have after recovering from COVID-19. Additionally, it will help determine the potential for developing an effective vaccine.

“For this community, even for the world, it’s a fairly new virus, so I’d say by-and-large, the jury’s out,” Dr. Jennings said.

Finding the answers begins with plasma donations. Information on eligibility is available online at oneblood.org/plasma.