Ballad Health said Thursday it will begin to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients with antibodies from survivors’ plasma.
“We would like to take plasma from people who have fully recovered and transfuse that into patients with life-threatening COVID-19 infections with the hope that these antibodies will neutralize some of the virus and help the patients recover,” Dr. Evan Kulbacki, a pathologist and medical director of Marsh Regional Blood Center, said during a news conference.
The blood center is part of Ballad Health, which is the predominant health care provider in Virginia’s far southwest coalfields and in Tennessee’s northeastern counties. CEO Alan Levine said having that relationship helped Ballad become one of the Mayo Clinic’s partners in investigating whether convalescent plasma therapy can successfully treat patients who are seriously ill with the novel coronavirus.
Plasma treatments are not themselves novel, as they were used beginning in the late 1800s to treat infectious diseases before antibiotics and vaccines were developed.
Antibodies developed by one person’s body may be used to fight an infection in another’s. But it is not yet known how effective this treatment may be with COVID-19. Since there is not a cure yet, the plasma treatment is being tried.
Dr. Amit Vashist, Ballad’s chief clinical officer, said preliminary studies are encouraging. As with any medical procedure, plasma transfer does carry risks, but Ballad said they are rare.
“Patients that have this viral COVID-19 disease, if they get antibodies from folks who have recovered from COVID-19, they will be able to fend this disease off. So truly this is an exciting development,” he said. “This could be a potential game-changer.”
Most people who have the virus experience mild or moderate symptoms, but for the elderly and for people with chronic illnesses the virus can cause serious illness and death.
Ballad Health on Thursday was treating 15 patients with the virus in its hospitals.
Tennessee’s Department of Health reported Thursday that 164 people have tested positive for the virus in Ballad’s service area, including 98 who have recovered. The Virginia Department of Health has received positive test results for about 100 people who live in Ballad’s region. Virginia does not release data on recovered cases.
But those are the people Ballad hopes will answer the call to donate plasma. Each one could help two to three patients. If the number willing to donate exceeds current patients, the plasma can be frozen for up to a year, Kulbacki said.
“The biggest thing we are missing now is the plasma from the folks who have recovered,” he said. “I’m always humbled to see how many folks come in when we put out a need for blood, and I don’t think this time will be any different.”
There are three classifications of donors. People who tested positive and who have been symptom-free for 28 days can donate quickly. Those who tested positive and are between 14 and 28 days of symptom onset will need to be tested first. And those who have the virus but who are not at the 14-day mark can still signal their interest, but they will be put on a call-back list for when enough time passes.
To learn more about donating plasma, call 423-408-7500.
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