Can plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 help those who are battling the new coronavirus?
As part of a national effort to answer that question, the Blood Bank of Hawaii on Wednesday announced it has started collecting plasma from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 in the state, and will be distributing the blood component to local hospitals caring for coronavirus patients.
Dr. Kim-Anh Nguyen, CEO of Blood Bank of Hawaii, said the first collection of “convalescent plasma” took place Monday, and that it was in the process of being labeled and would be ready for distribution shortly.
A newly formed coalition of government agencies and health care organizations will work to find potential donors, identify patients who could benefit from the plasma transfusions and participate in a national clinical trial that would provide a federally approved pathway to the administration of “coronavirus convalescent plasma” as an experimental treatment.
“We are proud to partner with Hawaii’s leading medical providers to contribute to a national study that makes this experimental treatment option a reality for our local community,” said Nguyen, calling it a historic moment for Hawaii.
The coalition is made up of The Queen’s Health Systems, Hawaii Pacific Health, Kaiser Permanente, the Hawaii Department of Health, University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and other clinical laboratories.
On Wednesday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hawaii rose to 613, up four from Tuesday. Of that total, 69 patients required hospitalization, and 16 have died. A total of 516, or 84.1%, have recovered.
Worldwide, the new coronavirus has infected more than 3 million, resulting in more than 228,000 deaths. More than 1 million in the U.S. have been infected with the new coronavirus with no vaccines or federally approved treatments yet available.
Bill Murphy of Honolulu, who recovered from COVID-19, stepped up as the first plasma donor on Monday.
“Everybody’s been extremely helpful and supportive , so really, the donation was easy for me,” he said. “When you think of people and what they’re facing in the hospitals, I’m just glad to know that maybe I can help.”
Murphy, 62, a retired air traffic controller, said he just wanted to do his part to help during the pandemic.
Murphy developed a fever and chills after a trip to New York to visit his daughter, and then tested positive for COVID-19. He developed numerous other symptoms, including a loss of taste and smell, but did not have to be hospitalized and recovered at home.
“I see all the nurses, doctors and hospital workers and front-line people that are working, even people at the checkstand at the grocery store stocking up the shelves at Costco,” he said. “What can I do to fit in? Well I’m recovered and I have the antibodies. That’s what spurred me.”
Already, he’s signed up for a second donation, which can take place after a 28-day window has passed.
Dr. Tarquin Collis of Kaiser Permanente called SARS-CoV-2 a “very worthy adversary” and a “very tricky virus.”
Collis said he was on call the weekend that Kaiser’s team diagnosed the first two cases in the state.
“It’s very frustrating to have someone in front of you who is acutely ill and to know what they have and yet not to have any tools in your toolbox to offer them,” he said. “I think we all hope that convalescent plasma may have a place in that toolbox. I think the study will go a long way to help us sort out when we should use this, and how, and how best to really get patients to a better place.”
Dr. Jerris Hedges, professor and dean at JABSOM, said the medical school and University Health Partners of Hawaii were excited to be a part of the project.
“Through this project we will learn more about how our bodies fight COVID-19 and provide those residents who have already recovered from this disease the ability to help others in the community,” said Hedges in a statement.
Although it would be considered experimental for the treatment of COVID-19, convalescent plasma has been used for infectious diseases such as SARS and MERS, according to Collis.
To be eligible, donors must have tested positive for COVID-19 with laboratory-confirmed documentation and be symptom-free for 28 days. They also must meet standard plasma donor eligibility requirements.
Collections of plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients only will be handled at the Blood Bank of Hawaii’s Dillingham Headquarters due to additional protocols and staffing requirements. The plasma can be frozen and stored for up to one year prior to use.
Dr. Ana Ortega Lopez of Queen’s Medical Center said having the plasma available for future months was important, particularly if COVID-19 continues to be a problem in the fall and winter.
“It brings some hope,” she said. “And it’s an excellent opportunity for all of us in the medical field to be cooperating together.”