- The world is racing to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus infection, but the first approved candidates likely won’t be ready for widespread use for about 18 months.
- Doctors are testing several other drugs that could improve the prognosis of patients, and one of them involves plasma.
- COVID-19 survivors can donate plasma that can be administered to others to boost their immune response to the pathogen.
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The race is on to develop wonder drugs that can help humanity get rid of the novel coronavirus infection, but we’ll have to wait as long as 18 months to get them. These are vaccines that can provide immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and eradicate the disease, assuming everyone on the planet gets inoculated. Until then, other cures including drugs that are used to treat various illnesses could be used to speed up recovery and reduce the number of fatal cases. And doctors are already working on the coronavirus “game-changer” drug we’re all waiting for.
If you immediately thought of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial that President Trump believes is a game-changer against COVID-19, that’s not it. In fact, hydroxychloroquine is far from becoming a COVID-19 cure. There’s just not enough data to support the idea that it works. What does work, however, is an old type of therapy that’s now being customized for COVID-19 treatment.
News reports often focus on two particular figures, including the number of new COVID-19 cases and the death toll. And you hear incredibly sad stories on TV every day about people who could not fight off the disease. But the reality is that most people will recover, and many of them will not experience any symptoms at all. Those people will have immunity against COVID-19 for some time, and that immunity can be shared.
The way that’s done is through blood plasma donation. Plasma contains the antibodies that fought the infection, and they can be used to boost the immune system of patients experiencing severe cases.
This type of therapy is hardly new, as it’s been used to fight off various other infectious diseases in the past. New York is one of the places where doctors have developed a plasma program to help those people in need. But other medical centers in the US and other countries have resorted to similar treatments for COVID-19.
“We have so many patients who are sick. We are crossing our fingers that this will be a game-changer and really accelerate the recovery of these patients,” Mount Sinai Health System Dr. Jeffrey Jhang told NBCNews.
What’s also great about the novel therapy is that it involves testing for COVID-19. The blood of donors will be tested to see if they have antibodies. Mount Sinai’s Icahn School microbiologist Dr. Florian Krammer developed an antibody test that doesn’t just tell you if you have the right antibodies, it also tells you how much of the antibodies you have. That way, doctors can harvest blood plasma from patients who have shown the greatest immune response to the disease.
Donors will also be tested to see if the virus is still present in their system. That’s because a patient should be cured of COVID-19 before donating plasma. Antibodies can coexist with the virus during some phases of the illness.
The problem with this treatment, which could turn out to be a real game-changer until a vaccine is readily available, is that it can’t be scaled as fast as needed. More than 10,000 people answered Mount Sinai’s call for volunteers. But not all of them had the disease, so they can’t donate anything.
People who are accepted are expected to donate the equivalent of four doses of plasma. Two doses are then given to very sick patients, and Mount Sinai has treated more than 20 of its sickest patients that way. Thousands more people might require the same treatment all over the world. The plasma could also be used as a prophylactic in healthcare workers who deal with COVID-19 patients regularly. Johns Hopkins is testing this sort of plasma-based therapy in a trial the FDA approved last week.
If you think you’ve had a case of COVID-19, you might as well check with local hospitals to see if they run similar plasma programs for the novel coronavirus. Your immune system could save the lives of others.