Plasma therapy: Hospitals try as treatment for Covid-19, seek donors

Mount Sinai Hospital and New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center have started using blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients as a treatment for those with the infection.

Donors are needed.

People who have fought off Covid-19 have plasma that carries antibodies against the disease. If those antibodies are transfused from a recovered person to a sick patient, they might boost the patient’s immune system and help them fight off the virus.

A plasma donor must not have any other toxins, and they can’t still have Covid-19. Donors should give plasma three to four weeks after getting sick, because at that time they have the most antibodies in their blood, said Dr. Nicole Bouvier, associate professor in the Mount Sinai Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases and the Department of Microbiology.

“There are a few reasons why people should donate,” said Bouvier. “The most important one is that we don’t have any other treatment for this virus, and because it’s so new, scientists and doctors haven’t had a chance to develop treatments. Like we haven’t had a chance to develop drugs or a vaccine for this particular virus… What we have though, which has worked against other diseases, is convalescent plasma.”

“The other reason would be because we’re all in this together. If you can help somebody else out who is sick right now, you have an ethical obligation to do that because now you can’t really do anything else except donate plasma if you’ve already been sick. That’s more of being a kind human being sort of thing. We’re all suffering this pandemic together, so we should help each other out.”

The risks to the recipient are similar to a blood transfusion and can include infection, allergic reactions and fever. Other risks include too much fluid going into the lungs because the heart is not able to pump effectively. Currently, there are no risks specific to plasma donation.

If plasma therapy works, it’s hoped that the antibodies in the plasma will give the recipient’s immune system enough of a boost to help it get rid of the virus, said Bouvier.

This treatment is only for compassionate use, meaning it is only used as a therapy for the sickest patients as it is just getting started, according to Bouvier. At the same time, doctors are trying not to wait until somebody has been critically sick for two to three weeks because even that’s hard for the plasma to treat, she said.  As more donors come forward, doctors and researchers at Mount Sinai are hopeful this therapy will be open to more people with Covid-19.

This idea of plasma transfusions has been around since 1918, when it seemed to help patients with influenza, according to the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. It has been used to help people recover from SARS, MERS and the H1N1 flu of 2009-2010, said the project. Earlier this week, Chinese researchers from academic institutions and companies in Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing shared data that plasma therapy was used on a small group of Covid-19 patients with improvement of their symptoms within 24 hours, according to an article in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers were not able to determine if it was the plasma therapy that stopped the symptoms, or if it was the antiviral medications that the patients were also taking.

According to a JAMA commentary on the use of convalescent plasma, researchers want to be able to help high risk patients from getting Covid-19. In addition to working on a vaccine, the authors state that plasma therapy could be used to protect patients with weak immune systems or others at risk.

Visit this form to sign up to donate plasma at Mount Sinai.

Go here for more information on the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project.