As the race to create a vaccine to prevent more coronavirus infections continues, Johns Hopkins University researchers are testing if blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can work in the meantime.
A trial about to get underway will look to see whether plasma containing antibodies against the virus can stave off infection in health care workers, nursing home residents and others. A second trial will test whether the plasma can prevent the disease from becoming severe in those who are already mildly sick and recovering at home.
“Historical information suggest this works against viral diseases and basic science on antibodies show it works and anecdotal data show it works,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of the department of molecular microbiology and immunology in the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We don’t have the data we want, but a lot of highly hopeful data that this therapy might be helpful," he said.
Casadevall said hospitals have been giving patients blood plasma offered by recovered COVID-19 patients, but there have been no clinical trials to show that it is responsible for any improvements. The Hopkins trials will include groups of people given ordinary blood plasma with no COVID-19 antibodies so researchers can compare patient outcomes.
The idea behind plasma, long used in treating viral infections, is that once someone is infected they develop the antibodies to fight the disease. Those antibodies remain floating around in plasma, the liquid part of blood, for some time after recovery. Scientists do not know how long someone retains the antibodies from a COVID-19 infection, but they believe it may be long enough to give themselves and other people temporary protection.
Casadevall said the project began as a grassroots effort in hospitals around the country among doctors who were desperate for therapies. There are no treatments for COVID-19 and the disease has killed almost 75,000 people in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins data.
The doctors, who have given plasma to about 7,200 people outside of trials, organized themselves into a group that could set up the trials. Hopkins will conduct the two trials outside of hospitals and other sites in New York and Boston will test the plasma inside hospitals on sicker patients.
Casadevall said the Hopkins trials are paid for by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the state of Maryland, which contributed $4 million.
People could be infused with the plasma as early as next week as part of the trials. Results should be available before the end of the year. If proven effective, the plasma could be collected from volunteers and used as treatment and prevention ahead of a more long-lasting vaccine and other therapies.
There are multiple efforts underway to create a vaccine and other treatments for COVID-19.