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Johns Hopkins to launch trials of blood plasma treatment for COVID-19

Blood plasma donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19 may be used to help protect frontline health workers. File photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Blood plasma donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19 may be used to help protect frontline health workers. File photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

May 7 (UPI) -- Johns Hopkins University next week will start two clinical trials of convalescent blood plasma to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Researchers at the university said the trials will be focused on frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents -- two groups that are particularly vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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Their expectation is that the blood from recovered patients contains antibodies -- or immune cells -- that fight the virus and can help these patients get better.

"The goal will be to give them plasma when they are ill, but not in respiratory distress, before they need to go to hospital," Arturo Casadevall, chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Doctors hope that treatment will mitigate the need to hospitalize these patients, make them better and relieve some of the burden on overwhelmed healthcare facilities, Casadevall said.

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"It's remarkable how rapidly this has developed in the United States," he said of the ability to develop methods to collect, test and dispense plasma during the pandemic.

On March 1, no infrastructure existed to collect and evaluate convalescent blood plasma in patients with COVID-19 in the United States.

"As of this morning, 7,200 people have been treated with plasma nationally," Casadevall said. "The infrastructure has been put in place."

Most of those treated with this approach -- taking blood plasma from people who recovered from COVID-19 and transfused into others -- are hospitalized patients with serious illness in cities like New York City and Boston.

The trials are focused on healthcare workers and nursing-home residents because the risk to them from COVID-19 has been a major concern.

Doctors and nurses are exposed to the virus when treating patients who are sick, as are staff members at nursing homes. Older adults and nursing home residents often have weakened immune systems because of their advanced age and other underlying health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

In the first Johns Hopkins-led study, some 150 healthcare workers and nursing home residents in Maryland will receive donated blood plasma that contains antibodies against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to see if it can effectively protect them from infection. The first infusion is scheduled May 15.

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For the second trial, some 1,000 people with confirmed COVID-19 who are in self-isolation at home and aren't sick enough to require hospital care will be given donated plasma that contains antibodies to see if it slows or stops disease progression.

"The goal will be to give them plasma when they are ill, but not in respiratory distress, before need to go to hospital," Casadevall said.

Researchers hope the treatment will mitigate the need for hospitalizing these patients, making them better and relieving some of the burden on overwhelmed healthcare facilities at the same time, he said.

To date, the evidence that supports using convalescent blood plasma in people with COVID-19 is "anecdotal," based on the findings of small studies in China, Casadevall said.

However, research has indicated that the vast majority of people who recover from the virus have high levels of antibodies in their blood, he said.

To protect against virus transmission, donors of blood plasma must be infection-free for a minimum of 28 days.

The two Johns Hopkins studies are being financed with $4 million in grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the state of Maryland.

Preliminary results for either trial are not expected for several weeks, but if the plasma-based approaches prove safe and effective -- either as a preventative or a treatment, or both -- they could help bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

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They also could serve as the basis for drug therapies that use gamma globulin -- essentially artificial antibody-containing plasma -- Casadevall said.

"What we learn from these studies will help us make better products later in the year," Casadevall said.

"In every epidemic since 1900, physicians have reached to use plasma because it is something that is available once you have survivors. But it is difficult, during a pandemic, to organize rigorous clinical trials. We're trying to do that now."

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