Tiffany Pinckney remembers the fear when she tested positive for COVID-19.
When she recovered, the New York City mother became one of the country’s first survivors to donate her blood to help treat other seriously ill patients.
“It is definitely overwhelming to know that in my blood, there may be answers,” Pinckney told The Associated Press.
Doctors around the world are dusting off a century-old treatment for infections: Infusions of blood plasma teeming with immune molecules that helped survivors beat the new coronavirus. There’s no proof it will work.
But former patients in Houston and New York were early donors, and now hospitals and blood centers are getting ready for potentially hundreds of survivors to follow.
The Food and Drug Administration Friday announced a national study, led by the Mayo Clinic, that will help hospitals offer the experimental plasma therapy and track how they fare. The American Red Cross will help collect and distribute the plasma.
There’s a tremendous call to action, said Dr. David Reich, president of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, which declared Pinckney recovered and raced to collect her blood. “People feel very helpless in the face of this disease. And this is one thing that people can do to help their fellow human beings. As treatments get underway, we just hope it works,” he said.
What the history books call convalescent serum was most famously used during the 1918 flu pandemic, and also against measles, bacterial pneumonia and numerous other infections before modern medicine came along.
Why? When infection strikes, the body starts making proteins called antibodies specially designed to target that germ. Those antibodies float in survivors blood specifically plasma, the yellowish liquid part of blood for months, even years.
“When new diseases erupt and scientists are scrambling for vaccines or drugs, its a stopgap measure that we can put into place quickly,” said Dr. Jeffrey Henderson of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who is helping to develop a nationwide study.
“This is not a cure per se, but rather it is a way to reduce the severity of illness,” Henderson said.
Doctors don’t know how long survivors antibodies against COVID-19 will persist.
“But for now, they’re the safest ones on the street,” said Dr. Rebecca Haley of Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, which is working to identify donors. “We would not be making a dent in their antibody supply for themselves.”
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration told hospitals how to seek case-by-case emergency permission to use convalescent plasma, and Houston Methodist Hospital and Mount Sinai jumped at the chance.
And a desperate public responded, with families taking to social media to plead on behalf of sick loved ones and people recovering asking how they could donate. According to Michigan State University, more than 1,000 people signed up with the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project alone. Dozens of hospitals formed that group to spur plasma donation and research.