How Donating Your Plasma Can Help Others During the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is encouraging people who have recovered from a confirmed infection with the new coronavirus to consider donating their plasma so it can be injected into people with severe forms of the infection.
  • It’s a treatment called convalescent plasma, and variations of it have been used to treat other infectious diseases, including previous variations of the coronavirus.
  • The FDA says one donation has the potential to help up to four patients.

George Tzagournis was on the last days of his family’s spring break trip to Florida when his throat started feeling itchy.

As soon as they’d return home to Columbus, Ohio, on March 15, the 49-year-old dentist and father of three got into bed and stayed there, suffering through a fever, chills, body aches, coughs, and other symptoms.

Soon, Tzagournis went to the emergency room for scans of his lungs, fearing he’d contracted pneumonia. Five days later, test results confirmed he had COVID-19.

“When you breathe in and out with this disease, you can hear it: It sounds like crinkling paper,” Tzagournis told Healthline.

Four weeks after his last symptom subsided, medical professionals wanted his blood — specifically the plasma in it — to see if his pain could help others battling COVID-19.

On April 16, the FDA put out a memo encouraging people who have recovered from a confirmed infection with the new coronavirus to consider donating their plasma so it can be injected into people with severe forms of the infection.

It’s a treatment called convalescent plasma, and variations of it have been used to treat other infectious diseases, including previous variations of the coronavirus.

Citing knowledge of other respiratory viruses and limited data from China, the epicenter of the pandemic, the FDA wants to use the potential therapy in clinical trials, as well as on an emergency basis for individual patients.

“During this challenging time, many people are asking what they can do to contribute to the COVID-19 response. Those individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 could have an immediate impact in helping others who are severely ill,” Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, FDA commissioner, said in the memo.

The FDA says one donation has the potential to help up to four patients.

What is convalescent plasma?

The FDA describes convalescent plasma as “an antibody-rich product made from blood donated by people who have recovered from the disease caused by the virus” to help lessen the severity or shorten the length of a person’s illness.

SARS-CoV-2 is a new type of virus in the coronavirus family, meaning at the beginning of the crisis, no one carried natural defenses against it. Still, most people who contract the coronavirus show little to no symptoms, but they can still transmit the disease. That’s why so many parts of the world are under stay-at-home orders, to give the virus fewer chances to spread.

But those with lab test-confirmed infections carry antibodies, something that may be beneficial to people fighting more dire forms of the infection by neutralizing the virus and helping those who have it recover quicker.

Convalescent plasma can also be used to manufacture what’s known as hyperimmune globulin, which can similarly be used to treat patients with COVID-19 by assisting a person’s immune system with fighting an infection.

Whether hyperimmune goblin works against SARS-CoV-2 is currently up for scientific study, but anecdotal evidence has been enough for federal regulators, major research centers, and the largest blood collection agency in the United States to band together.

Dr. Emanuel T. Ferro, a pathologist and director of the blood bank, donor center, and transfusion medicine at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center in California, says immunoglobulin therapy has been used to successfully help a person create what’s known as “passive immunity” to viruses like hepatitis A and rabies.

But he says it’s just still too early in the process to know if these types of antibodies could be used to develop new therapies for the coronavirus.

“The concept is sound, but this needs to be studied more thoroughly to determine just how effective it is,” Ferro told Healthline.

That’s what the Mayo Clinic study is trying to determine.

Where can I donate convalescent plasma?

The Mayo Clinic is acting as a hub for researchers to find out if using antibodies from recovered patients with COVID-19 can benefit those currently battling the disease. As of April 27, it has more than 2,000 sites, with nearly 3,000 physicians, 6,000 patients, and nearly 2,500 transfusions.

The FDA also launched a web page to help direct recovered patients with COVID-19 to local blood or plasma collection centers or ongoing clinical trials.

The American Red Cross has also set up a website for interested donors, and other local blood or plasma collection centers are also participating.

“We would love people who have recovered from COVID-19 to join us,” Dr. Erin Goodhue, executive medical director of the American Red Cross, told Healthline.

Potential donors are first screened over the phone. They’re looking for people who have lab results to confirm they were previously COVID-19 positive, have been symptom-free for 28 days, and are otherwise healthy.

A donor’s blood is put into a centrifuge that separates it into its different components, like plasma, platelets, and white and red blood cells. It’s then sent to a manufacturing facility where its frozen and samples are given standard infectious disease testing.

As the sample makes its way through the process, it’s assigned a number and stripped of any identifying information, meaning a person’s results aren’t available to others. If it’s deemed safe and useful, it goes to a blood bank before being administered to a patient with COVID-19.

“It’s just like a regular plasma transfusion,” Goodhue said.

As medical experts are desperately working on all avenues of finding ways to combat the coronavirus, the FDA — which regulates, among other things, medical studies, tests, and eventual treatments — has detailed on a new hub who is allowed to donate.

That includes restrictions for men who have sex with men (MSM). Until recently, the FDA has held onto rules many activists have dubbed leftovers as arbitrary and reactionary to the HIV crisis of the 1980s. But the FDA recently relaxed its policy, saying MSM only have to refrain from sex for 3 months, not a year, in order to be considered for blood donation.

“It was good to see the FDA lift some of those restrictions,” Goodhue said.

But people who haven’t been diagnosed with COVID-19 can still help because there’s a shortage of plasma donations, which help people with compromised immune systems, including patients with cancer.

The typical large-scale blood drives across the country have been canceled because of the virus. Without those drives, experts fear there may not be enough to handle the typical demand, even without the coronavirus figured in.

“There’s still an ongoing need for blood donations,” Goodhue said.

‘It’s a no-brainer’

When Tzagournis’ family was on vacation, they saw the world shut down around them. Tzagournis worried about getting his family home, only to be one of the five of them who had a drastic reaction to the coronavirus and was able to be tested for it.

That’s because his job as a dentist means he needs to be in people’s mouths. Now that he’s tested positive and negative, he’s believed to be one of the few people who doesn’t have to worry about contracting the coronavirus.

But the jury’s still out about that, as there have been reports of secondary infections among survivors of COVID-19.

What experts do know, so far, is that the antibodies like those circulating through the blood of Tzagournis and others have potential in helping those in the dire straits in emergency rooms and intensive care units all over the globe.

That’s why the FDA is asking them to donate their plasma, and the Mayo Clinic and the Red Cross are organizing a widespread donor network.

For Tzagournis, it was seeing local news reports about a local high school senior seeking convalescent plasma donations to help his compromised immune system fend off COVID-19.

He then called the children’s hospital where the boy was being treated, shared his positive test results, and was tested a second time, which showed he’s now COVID-19 negative.

Now he’s waiting for 4 weeks to pass so he can donate his plasma again, hoping it’s able to help people who may have it worse off than he did. His AB+ blood type means anyone can receive his plasma.

“What better way to beat this virus and help or save someone’s life?” Tzagournis said. “It couldn’t be any easier. It’s a no-brainer.”

It’s almost as easy as staying at home.

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