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Plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients could be key to future treatment

a hand holds a bag of plasma
Adobe Stock Photos
Plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 could be used to give temporary immunity to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

As people shelter in place and sew homemade face masks, many wonder when scientists might find a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. Meanwhile, a growing number of Michiganders who have tested positive for the virus are starting to recover. It turns out they could have an important role to play in the search for a treatment.

The National Convalescent Plasma Projectis hoping to use a century-old therapy in the fight against the novel coronavirus. The project matches people who have recovered from COVID-19 with people who are at high risk, but not yet sick. Dr. Nigel Paneth is an epidemiologist at Michigan State University, and is on the leadership team for the NCPP. This kind of treatment has a long history, he said, and has been used to treat illnesses like pneumococcal pneumonia and past SARS outbreaks.

Here’s how convalescent plasma treatment works. A person who has recovered from an illness—in this case COVID-19—donates their plasma, which is rich in antibodies from fighting the virus. The hope is that the plasma could then be used to treat or prevent the viral infection. 

“Why is that? Well, because you formed antibodies in the course of the illness that fight the virus," Paneth said. "So the logic is you take antibodies from someone who’s recovered and give them to someone who’s just starting out their course of disease, and the hope is that infusion of antibodies will help the immune system, which is just gearing up to fight the virus.”

This is what’s known as a passive immunity. An active immunity, like a vaccine, spurs one's body to produce antibodies. Passive immunity, Paneth explained, just provides the immune system with a sort of antibody stockpile to tide it over for a month or so.

Later trials may include people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are already showing symptoms. But right now, Paneth said, the project is focused on getting convalescent plasma to medical staff and first responders who have likely been exposed to the virus, but aren't yet sick. Paneth said he is excited about the treatment's potential as a way to protect health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could give them an armor in addition to the PPE, an additional layer of armor, to protect them for at least a month or two against the effects of this virus?”

Donors who have tested positive for COVID-19 will have to test negative before donating. For people who believe they had the virus, but were never tested, a lab would test the plasma for the COVID-19 antibodies.

Interested in donating your plasma to the project? You can find out how and learn more about the project at the National Convalescent Plasma Project’s website.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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