The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to pose a threat across the globe. As of writing, the number of confirmed cases is now about to reach two million worldwide with over 100,000 deaths. But on the other hand, the number of survivors who successfully recovered is now more than 400,000 worldwide.
Though it may have been phenomenal and record-breaking how fast-paced the progress of scientists and researchers have made in developing a cure, it is, unfortunately, not enough. As long as there is no available vaccine, no matter how stringent the imposition of social distancing, COVID-19 will remain a threat to public health.
Fortunately, we have plasma as a temporary alternative and aid to those who are infected.
Plasma, a bridge we use while the cure is underway
Since the publication of the study from China suggesting blood transfusion from those who have beaten the disease could help buy time for new victims, doctors around the globe began calling out for donors.
It may sound new, but plasma therapy has been saving lives for centuries now.
“I think of it as a bridge, until we can develop a vaccine or pharmaceutical that can be shown to be safe, and effective, and can be produced in mass quantities,” Elliott Bennett-Guerrero, who is studying the use of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients at Stony Brook Medicine, said in an interview with The Verge.
“With plasma, we’re leveraging the body’s amazing ability to develop antibodies and immunity to pathogens. We transfer those protective factors to people who are sick and haven’t been able to mount an immune response,” he added.
Plasma is the liquid portion of blood that contains, among other components, the pathogen-fighting antibodies produced by the body in response to an infection (UMD News, 2020). When someone has successfully recovered from an illness, their blood will contain antibodies that their immune system produced against the virus—also known as convalescent plasma. Doctors hope that through infusion, the sick patient, who may not have antibodies yet, will have a better chance of defeating the virus and recover. In other words, its job is to temporarily aid that person until they develop the appropriate immune response, not cure.
Antibodies-infusion has been used as a treatment since at least the 1890s. It was even used during the 1918 flu pandemic where its effectiveness was more evident. Since then, it has helped dozens of patients diagnosed with various illnesses, including measles and chickenpox.
Aid, not a CURE
Despite helping thousands over a century, plasma transfusion is considered to be the last resort of treatment.
“It’s a really well-meaning approach, but it has a lot of variability and limitations, ” University of Nebraska Medical Center Medical Director Scott Koepsell said.
For example, every person who survives an infection will have a slightly different mix of immune substances in their plasma. Each sick person treated with plasma, then, is getting a slightly different treatment. That can make it really difficult for researchers to tell whether plasma therapy is generally effective (or ineffective) or whether it depends on if a patient gets a really good (or bad) batch of plasma. Medical researchers are trying to address this issue by only allowing survivors with high levels of antibodies to donate plasma, but the plasma will still vary from donor to donor.
Aside from the general uncertainty, any blood plasma transfusion can also be at risk of serious side effects such as lung injuries or allergic reactions.
Philippine COVID-19 Recovered Donors
In the Philippines, the call of plasma donors for those who recovered from COVID-19 has only begun.
Dr. Mae Campomanes, a pulmonary consultant at St. Luke’s Medical Center, said that plasma donations only started over the weekend and it takes about a week to establish definite improvement. However, Campomanes said that recipients of the first batch of plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients are already showing improvements.
“[I am] happy to say, a couple of those who received a convalescent plasma, the X-ray results have improved,” Campomanes said in an interview with INQUIRER.
“Oxygen status has also somewhat improved and hopefully, we will continue to monitor these patients and see further improvement towards the end of the week from the time they have been given infusion. We are very hopeful,” she added.
On the other hand, Dr. Francisco Lopez, a hematologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, explained the requirements and process the donors need to comply to verify whether or not they have the antibodies needed.
“One requirement [for those who will donate] is they have to have two negative nasal swabs and after that, we proceed with the other tests, the standard tests—HIV, hepatitis, syphilis, malaria, and other blood tests. We also [have to] really check whether they indeed already have the antibodies,” Lopez said.
Recovered patients up to the age of 65 could donate, Lopez said. But those older than 65 who wish to donate need to be thoroughly screened.
So far, St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Philippine General Hospital are among the institutions and facilities who offer convalescent plasma donation services.
For those COVID-19 survivors who wish to donate their blood, they may contact the PGH or St. Luke’s Medical Center via their Facebook page for more details.
NOTE: Donors are urged to set an appointment beforehand to minimize physical contact.