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Blood plasma can help us live with COVID-19

sullivan-david-col-sigThis past year has forced many of us to experience more isolation than ever before. With over 2 million deaths worldwide and more than 650,000 U.S. hospitalizations, almost every American knows someone who has been impacted by COVID-19. The new and more contagious viral variants only enhance the fear and confusion surrounding this pandemic. We need to find a way out.

But what if there were a way to reduce COVID-19’s deadly effects and halt its rapid spread, even as we wait for vaccines to be widely distributed?

My colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins University believe blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients could be key to setting us free. We are working on two clinical trials to investigate whether a blood plasma transfusion containing high levels of antibodies to COVID-19, given early in illness, reduces the severity of the disease or even prevents people from developing an infection entirely.

For high-risk patients, we believe this treatment could potentially cut hospitalizations by half and prevent deaths. For milder cases, we believe this antibody-rich plasma could speed up recovery time and reduce the spread of the virus.

Others are asking the same question. A recent Argentinian study published in The New England Journal of Medicine of 160 patients, all over the age of 65, showed that the early use of convalescent plasma reduced the relative risk of severe respiratory disease by 48% in the adults being studied.

If we can confirm this treatment is effective in all age groups, we could ease anxieties around community outbreaks, reduce long and disruptive quarantine periods, and prevent severe complications resulting in hospitalization.

Plasma, vaccines work together

Many states were anticipating a windfall of vaccines in January — only to be told by federal officials that no stockpile existed, leading to disappointment and canceled appointments. Blood plasma remains one of the few ways we can stop the spread of COVID-19.

This treatment isn’t new. Blood plasma has been used for over a century to combat illnesses like measles, polio and mumps. Blood plasma even won the Nobel Prize in 1901 for curing diphtheria in children and helped curb outbreaks during the last great pandemic of 1918.

While blood transfusions aren’t as quick or easy as a vaccination, this treatment could be scaled quickly and cost-effectively around the globe by leveraging well-established distribution networks. No novel technologies are involved in securing supply, storing or transporting plasma.

If proven effective, outpatient clinics with proper freezer storage and sterilization for blood transfusions could immediately treat individuals anywhere in the world. Plasma from people who have defeated the viral variants can be quickly implemented to respond to this threat more quickly than monoclonals or vaccines.

Consider an eight-hour plane flight, after which one passenger tested positive. Both the infected individual and those who came into contact with that person could immediately be given a dose of plasma, creating a potential ring of immunity around a positive case and blunting a potentially dangerous outbreak.

We need your help

Johns Hopkins is working with 25 testing sites across the country to investigate this treatment.

If you have tested positive in the last six days or have been exposed in the last three to a family member or colleague who has, you could potentially receive a life-saving treatment and help end the pandemic. This Clinical Trial Location Finder can help you find which testing site is closest to you.

After joining our study, volunteers receive a physical exam and a transfusion of plasma. They will then attend virtual and in-person follow-up visits as the illness progresses, with direct access to top-quality infectious disease doctors. All medical care provided as part of the study is free, and volunteers are compensated.

In a time of isolation, the key to finding our way out of this pandemic and resuming our normal lives might actually be found in bringing our minds and hearts together to fight for ways to regain what we value. Please join us in this fight for a better future.

David Sullivan, M.D., is professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a principal investigator for the Johns Hopkins Plasma Trials. To see if you qualify for the study, visit CovidPlasmaTrial.org or call 888-506-1199.