COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Controversy

On August 23, convalescent plasma was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Many COVID-19 survivors are unaware that they can easily give this life-saving plasma. With a vaccine still months away, convalescent plasma is one of many tools being deployed to fight in the U.S. Though convalescent plasma treatment has been used for nearly a century, and there is some controversy surrounding its use for treating COVID-19 patients.

The word “convalescent” refers to an individual recovering from an illness or operation. Plasma is the yellow, liquid portion of the blood. About 55 percent of our blood is plasma. The vital blood component supports several essential functions of the body, including blood clotting and immunity.

Antibodies can be found in plasma, so individuals who have been previously diagnosed with COVID-19 may have these desired antibodies in their plasma. Taking plasma from COVID-19 survivors and administering it to those currently hospitalized with the disease may help them recover faster.

The History of Convalescent Plasma

This blood-derived treatment was first used in the 1890s before antimicrobial therapy was developed. The century-old treatment was famously used in 1918 during the influenza pandemic, known as the “Spanish Flu.” Astonishingly, fatality rates were decreased by half for patients treated with convalescent plasma compared to those who did not receive the treatment. During the Spanish Flu, convalescent plasma therapy seemed most beneficial when patients received the plasma early on in their infection.

During the Korean War, convalescent plasma was used to successfully treat troops who had contracted hantavirus. The treatment was also deployed against some modern novel virus outbreaks such as MERS, SARS, and Ebola.

Convalescent Plasma May Help Current COVID-19 Patients

Hoping to use it as a temporary treatment until a permanent coronavirus vaccine came to fruition, doctors at Johns Hopkins University began testing convalescent plasma in March 2020. The investigational treatment is now approved and being used to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients across the U.S.

When survivors donate their blood, it is sent through a cell separator that collects plasma. After the plasma is extracted, blood cells are returned to the donor. The plasma is tested for safety and then stored until administered to COVID-19 patients via intravenous drip. The initial treatment involves administering a little less than 8 ounces of plasma over a one- to two-hour period. Each donation provides antibody-laden plasma for up to four COVID-19 patients.

The antibodies in the plasma have the ability to bind to and neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Results from small clinical trials suggest that the treatment may lessen the severity and/or shorten the duration of the illness.

Who Qualifies to Donate COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma

To be able to donate convalescent plasma, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Have a prior, verified COVID-19 diagnosis and have fully recovered
  • Be at least 17 years old
  • Weigh at least 110 pounds
  • Are in good health

There are several options for donating convalescent plasma. Check out the resources below to find your nearest donation site.

Donation sites have varying guidelines on the frequency COVID-19 survivors may donate plasma. Currently, the Red Cross allows survivors to donate as often as every seven days for up to three months, up to a maximum of eight times. Check with your specific donation site to verify their approved frequency.

Mixed Feedback Surrounding COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma

Though the treatment is FDA-approved, there has been feedback from other health institutes claiming that there is not enough evidence to support the use of convalescent plasma for treating COVID-19. In September 2020, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released the following statement, “There are insufficient data for the COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel (the Panel) to recommend either for or against the use of COVID-19 convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19.”

Also, as with any treatment or medication, there are possible side effects of receiving convalescent plasma. Possible side effects of COVID-19 patients treated with convalescent plasma include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Transfusion-associated circulatory overload
  • Transfusion-associated lung injury
  • Potential for transfusion-transmitted infections

After reviewing the available scientific evidence, the FDA state,"... they believe the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks."

Though concrete evidence still needs to be confirmed, convalescent plasma is being used as an investigational treatment across the United States and worldwide. If you’re a COVID-19 survivor, consider bringing hope to those currently fighting the disease by donating your life-saving plasma at a site near you.

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