How plasma transfusions may heal COVID-19 patients

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Courtesy; CBS News

More than 6,000 COVID patients have now received convalescent plasma. It’s not clear yet how much it may help. But it’s a technique that goes way back, and Dr. Arturo Casadevall, of Johns Hopkins University, stepped up to resurrect it.

The procedure, he said, has been around for 120 years. “It was the subject of the first Nobel Prize,” he said.

That’s when doctors realized that virus-fighting antibodies borrowed from recovered patients may help prevent, or cure, disease.  “I knew that there was an enormous body of experience with the use of convalescent plasma,” Dr. Casadevall said. But much of this was lost to history. So, on February 27, he penned an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, writing about a doctor at a boys’ boarding school in Pennsylvania back in 1934, who treated a boy with a serious case of measles.

“So, what the doctor did was, he went to the kid who recovered, he took some of his blood, and they gave small amounts to the other children,” said Casadevall. “And then they waited. And the epidemic that was supposed to have happened didn’t happen.”

His article was published just as the first coronavirus deaths in the U.S. were reported.

And at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, Dr. Nicole Bouvier would soon be on the frontlines treating lots of patients.

“Yeah, I mean it’s incredibly frustrating,” she told Aubrey. “It’s hard for the frontline doctors, the nurses. These are all people who are used to fixing things.”

But at the time there was not a single approved treatment. So, behind the scenes, Dr. Casadevall scrambled to build a coalition of doctors. The first was Michael Joyner, of the Mayo Clinic; then, William Hartman of the University of Wisconsin; James Musser of Houston Methodist Hospital; Nicole Bouvier of Mt. Sinai; and Andreas Klein of Tufts University.

Dr. Joyner led the charge: “There was a crisis. So, people get into action mode when there’s a crisis.”

He worked with the FDA to expand access to plasma and get more hospitals on board. “We just got up every day and kept pushing. We just kept pushing, pushing, pushing,” Dr. Joyner said.

Within weeks patients were being treated with convalescent plasma. Dr. Klein said what could have taken months or years happened quickly: “I think that’s unprecedented. And is really inspiring.”

Dr. Bouvier said, “It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never been part of anything like this.”

Dr. Musser’s team at Houston Methodist was among the first to treat COVID patients with plasma: “I view this as very much like an old-fashioned barnraising. You know, we’ll aggregate and we’ll get this done.”

These doctors said convalescent plasma may be just a stop-gap measure until more treatments and a vaccine come along. Dr. Joyner said, “I think it’ll be part of a cocktail. And hopefully then this paves the way for a vaccine. This was really the first kind of biological shot on a goal, and the first shot on goal, and the first best biological shot on goal.”

This article is adapted by CBS News.

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