When we talk and speak on the topic of COVID-19, things are ever changing. In a matter of weeks, an elaborate network of scientists, researchers, doctors and blood banks across the country are reviving an "old school" treatment known as Convalescent Plasma Therapy.
"Convalescent plasma therapy is when you take plasma from patients who recovered from COVID-19 and use the antibodies in that plasma to treat people who have COVID-19," says Dr. Michael Joyner, Research Chair in Anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
He's one of a handful of doctors across the country spearheading an effort called Expanded Access Program, through an expedited FDA-approved track that allows for plasma collection to be done and transfused to those patients who are ill.
"What we want to do is to keep people out of ICU, and that is what this therapy can do," he adds.
So far, under the Expanded Access Program, 10 current COVID-19 patients who are suffering the effects of the virus are getting plasma transfusions from those who have recovered.
"It's an old school treatment that we know works but it's also logistically challenging," he adds.
The process begins with a recovered patient who is currently showing no symptoms and has been symptom-free for anywhere from 14 to 28 days. In the Phoenix metropolitan area, Vitalant is the blood-capturing agency aligned to be part of this life-saving process.
"This opportunity to save people's lives is amazing because you can save two to six lives with a donation," says Dr. Ralph Vassallo, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer for Vitalant, one of the nation's leading blood-collection agencies, and a leader in Arizona.
"The entire process takes anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes....those who are eligible to donate must be symptom-free for 14 days, they can start donating right away," adds Dr. Vassallo.
According to Dr. Vassallo, the plasma therapy is what he refers to as 'passive immunity' meaning passing high levels of COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies to someone whose body hasn't quite yet built up the immunity to fight the virus.
"The most important thing is for donors to recognize that they are eligible," he adds.
Plasma therapy was first introduced about 100 years ago, during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Since then, it has been used for other outbreaks such as measles, SARS and Ebola, to name a few.
Dr. Joyner says the biggest challenge right now is that there is not enough of a 'pipeline' of recovered blood to transfuse at a larger scale.
"People who were sick in March are just coming on the line as potential donors," adds Dr. Joyner.
According to Dr. Joyner, so far his program has transfused plasma to 10 current COVID-19 patients, and nationally, 50 patients have received convalescent plasma through other programs.
The goal is to 'jumpstart' the program, something that can only be done with donated plasma. He's hopeful that the number of donors will grow as more people are tested for the virus.
"It's an expanded access program where we are trying to get as many people across the country as possible," he adds.
Later this week, the first COVID-19 plasma donor will be ready to donate here in Arizona. Dr. Joyner believes the next few weeks will be key in getting this life-saving therapy out to the masses.
"The entire scientific community is rallying around it and we've made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks and we continue to get a from a trickle to a river," he adds.
If you are a COVID 19 recovered patient and would like to donate, the entire process takes no more than one hour. You can visit COVIDPlasma.org or Vitalant.