Blood Donated from Recovered Coronavirus Patients May Soon Yield a Stopgap Treatment

Antibodies from the blood of recovered patients is being tested as a stopgap treatment.

(© angellodeco/Adobe)


In October 1918, Lieutenant L.W. McGuire of the United States Navy sent a report to the American Journal of Public Health detailing a promising therapy that had already saved the lives of a number of officers suffering from pneumonia complications due to the Spanish influenza outbreak.

"These antibodies then become essentially drugs."

McGuire described how transfusions of blood from recovered patients – an idea which had first been trialed during a polio epidemic in 1916 – had led to rapid recovery in a series of severe pneumonia cases at a Naval Hospital in Massachusetts. "It is believed the serum has a decided influence in shortening the course of the disease, and lowering the mortality," he wrote.

Now more than a century on, this treatment – long forgotten in the western world - is once again coming to the fore during the current COVID-19 pandemic. With fatalities continuing to rise, and no vaccine expected for many months, experts are urging medical centers across the U.S. and Europe to initiate collaborations between critical care and transfusion services to offer this as an emergency treatment for those who need it most.

As of March 20, there are more than 90,000 individuals globally who have recovered from the disease. Some scientists believe that the blood of many of these people contains high levels of neutralizing antibodies that can kill the virus.

"These antibodies then become essentially drugs," said Arturo Casadevall, professor of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is currently co-ordinating a clinical trial of convalescent serum for COVID-19 involving 20 institutions across the US.

"We're talking about preparing a therapy right out of the serum of those that have recovered. It could also be used in patients who are already sick, but have not progressed to respiratory failure, to treat them before they enter intensive care units. That will provide a lot of support because there's a limited number of respirators and resources."

The first conclusive data on how the blood of recovered patients can help tackle COVID-19 is set to come out of China, where it was also used as an emergency treatment during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. On February 9, a severely ill patient in Wuhan was treated with convalescent serum and since then, hospitals across China have used the therapy on a total of 245 patients, with 91 reportedly showing an improvement in symptoms.

In China alone, more than 58,000 patients have now recovered from COVID-19. Casadevall said that last week the country shipped 90 tons of serum and plasma from these patients to Italy – the center of the pandemic in Europe – for emergency use.

Some of the first people to be treated are likely to be doctors and nurses in hospitals who are most at risk of exposure.

A current challenge, however, is that the blood donation from the recovered patients must be precisely timed in order to maximize the number of antibodies a future patient receives. Doctors in China say that obtaining the necessary blood samples at the right time is one of the major barriers to applying the treatment on a larger scale.

"It's difficult to get the donations," said Dr. Yuan Shi of Chongqing Medical University. "When patients have recovered from the disease, we would like to collect their blood two to four weeks afterwards. We try our best to call back the patients, but it's sometimes difficult to get them to come back within that time period."

Because of such hurdles, Japan's largest drugmaker, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, is now working to turn neutralizing antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients into a standardized drug product. They hope to launch a clinical trial for this in the next few months.

In the U.S., Casadevall hopes blood transfusions from recovered patients can become clinically available as a therapy within the next four weeks, once regulatory approval has been received. Some of the first people to be treated are likely to be doctors and nurses in hospitals who are most at risk of exposure, to provide a protective boost in their immunity.

"A lot of healthcare workers in the U.S. have already been asked to quarantine, and you can imagine what effect that's going to have on the healthcare system," he said. "It can't take large numbers of people staying home; there's not the capacity."

But not all medical experts are convinced it's the way to go, especially when it comes to the most severe cases of COVID-19. "There's no knowing whether that treatment would be useful or not," warned Dr. Andrew Freedman, head of Cardiff University's School of Medicine in the U.K.

"There are going to be better things available in a few months, but we are facing, 'What do you do now?'"

However, Casadevall says that the treatment is not envisioned as a panacea to treating coronavirus, but simply a temporary measure which could give doctors some options until stronger options such as vaccines or new drugs are available.

"This is a stopgap option," he said. "There are going to be better things available in a few months, but we are facing, 'What do you do now?' The only thing we can offer severely ill people at the moment is respiratory support and oxygen, and we don't have anything to prevent those exposed from going on and getting ill."

David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Recent immigration restrictions have left many foreign researchers' projects and careers in limbo—and some in jeopardy.

Unsplash

This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

When COVID-19 cases were surging in New York City in early spring, Chitra Mohan, a postdoctoral fellow at Weill Cornell, was overwhelmed with worry. But the pandemic was only part of her anxieties. Having come to the United States from India on a student visa that allowed her to work for a year after completing her degree, she had applied for a two-year extension, typically granted for those in STEM fields. But due to a clerical error—Mohan used an electronic signatureinstead of a handwritten one— her application was denied and she could no longerwork in the United States.

"I was put on unpaid leave and I lost my apartment and my health insurance—and that was in the middle of COVID!" she says.

Meanwhile her skills were very much needed in those unprecedented times. A molecular biologist studying how DNA can repair itself, Mohan was trained in reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR—a lab technique that detects pathogens and is used to diagnose COVID-19. Mohan wanted to volunteer at testing centers, but because she couldn't legally work in the U.S., she wasn't allowed to help either. She moved to her cousin's house, hired a lawyer, and tried to restore her work status.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

Unsplash

This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.