David Sullivan: Convalescent plasma could give us a new tool to live with COVID-19

Johns Hopkins will conduct clinical trials at the University of Utah.

(Sue Ogrocki | AP photo) Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, left, donates convalescent plasma at the Oklahoma Blood Institute in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. This is Gov. Stitt's second time donating plasma since he tested positive for the coronavirus in July.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 2 million patients worldwide have died from COVID-19 and roughly 650,000 Americans have been hospitalized with late-stage symptoms.

What if there were a way to avoid this dire reality? To keep businesses open, minimize lockdowns and reduce outbreak anxiety?

Blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients could be key to setting us free without having to wait for vaccines to reach everyone. This type of plasma — also called high-antibody-titer convalescent plasma — has already been used to successfully treat more than 400,000 hospitalized U.S. patients. Could it help stop the virus’ progression, if given to patients at an earlier stage of their illness?

My colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins University are investigating whether giving a transfusion of plasma from someone who has recovered from COVID-19 containing high levels of antibodies reduces the severity of the disease or prevents people from developing an infection entirely if given to a patient early after diagnosis or exposure.

Our trials could move COVID-19 treatment from the hospital to an outpatient setting and provide a “ring of protection” around those exposed, ending an outbreak before it starts. For high-risk patients, this treatment could cut hospitalizations by half and prevent deaths. For milder cases, antibody-rich plasma could speed up recovery time and reduce the spread of the virus.

We’re not the only ones testing this hypothesis. 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%.

If we can confirm this treatment is effective, we could reduce the virus’ disruptive and deadly effects.

Mounting uncertainty amid vaccines and new variants

With news that the federal stockpile of COVID-19 vaccines is depleted and many vaccination sites are cancelling appointments, convalescent plasma remains one of the few ways we can stop the spread of COVID-19 — especially with the lingering threat of more contagious variants.

Unlike vaccines, plasma doesn’t require complex layers of supply chain logistics nor production ramp-up time; the collection and distribution network for plasma already exists. Since this treatment carries no intellectual property, it can be provided at a lower cost than a proprietary drug or vaccine. If proven effective, it could be a solution in rural areas with smaller hospitals and clinics, worldwide.

Convalescent plasma could give us a new tool to help flatten the curve and live with COVID-19 instead of letting it control us. Consider the impact this has on daily life. Instead of an entire school, worksite, or church having to quarantine for two weeks due to one positive case, infected individuals could immediately be given a dose of plasma to improve their recovery. Anyone who encountered the positive individual would be given the plasma to prevent the infection from taking hold.

What it’s like to participate

Johns Hopkins is working with 25 testing sites across the country, including the University of Utah, to get support from volunteers who are willing to be part of a potentially game-changing solution. We know that some of the worst hit communities are also the most distrustful of medical research. Please know that our study is truly “by the people, for the people.” Our funding is from U.S. taxpayers, the plasma is donated by COVID survivors, and it is all made possible by the hundreds of volunteers of every faith and every race who are committed to finding an effective treatment.

If you have tested positive in the last six days or been exposed in the last three to a family member or colleague who has, we ask you join them at CovidPlasmaTrial.org.

On day one, volunteers will receive a physical exam and go through the enrollment process. The next day, they will receive a transfusion of plasma. As the illness progresses, volunteers will attend virtual and in-person follow-up visits. You will have direct access to COVID-19 testing and top-quality infectious disease doctors. All medical care provided as part of the study is free, and volunteers may be compensated up to $575 dollars for their time.

Only with mutual respect, community participation, and collaboration will we defeat COVID-19.

David Sullivan, M.D. | Johns Hopkins University

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.