A new study of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 suggests that a century-old technique involving blood plasma transfusions from recovered patients could improve survival rates if done early enough.
The study conducted at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital was posted on the medRxiv public preprint server Friday. It compared the results of 39 COVID-19 patients who received transfusions to 39 who did not.
Preprints are studies that have not undergone the normal peer-review process required for publication in medical or scientific journals. However, during the coronavirus emergency, many researchers are releasing their results as soon as they are available.
The study found that the disease worsened in 18% of the patients who received plasma compared to 24% of those who didn’t.
After 16 days, almost 13% of the plasma recipients had died, compared with more than 24% of the control patients. And 72% of the plasma recipients were discharged compared with 67% of the control group.
The report concluded that the procedure “is a potentially efficacious treatment option for patients hospitalized with COVID-19; however, these data suggest that non-intubated patients may benefit more than those requiring mechanical ventilation.”
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This handout image obtained on April 29, 2020 and released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), shows a colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (red) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The study comes with one caveat.
“This is a retrospective case-controlled study. It does not have the rigor of a randomized, controlled trial so that still needs to be done,” Dr. Nicole Bouvier, an infectious disease specialist at Mt. Sinai and the study’s lead author, told Reuters.
“This does show promise that convalescent plasma is effective,” she added.
Mark K. Slifka, a virologist at the Oregon Health and Science University Medical School , called the technique “an exciting approach that provides the first solid data for protecting against lethal COVID-19.”
“Unlike hydroxychloroquine or remdesivir that have failed to provide significant improvement in mortality, convalescent plasma therapy provides statistically significant improvement in survival,” Slifka said.
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There was no significant improvement for the patients who were intubated prior to therapy, however, indicating that lung damage was at that point too severe to respond to treatment, he said.
The prospect of applying the technique to COVID-19 patients was raised in March in a paper published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, NBC News reported.
The paper, written by Arturo Casadevall and Liise-anne Pirofski, noted that the procedure was used in the early 20th century to stem outbreaks of viral diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, and influenza. It also was used during the H1N1 outbreaks in 2009 and the 2013 West African Ebola epidemic.
“Although every viral disease and epidemic is different, these experiences provide important historical precedents that are both reassuring and useful as humanity now confronts the COVID-19 epidemic,” they wrote.
Casadevall, of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has led a nationwide effort to develop a plasma treatment.
While the latest study appears promising, some experts advise caution in the search for a quick treatment for COVID-19, noting the embrace of hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir without evidence of safety or efficacy.
“One of the things I don’t want this to be is the flavor of the month,” Dr. Shmuel Shoham, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Medscape Medical News.
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In an attempt to promote plasma transfusions, more than 40 of the nation’s top health institutions have joined the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. It collects plasma from recovered patients to treat people struggling with COVID-19.
People who want to donate plasma can register with the Mayo Clinic, the lead institution for the program.
In March, the Food and Drug Administration authorized compassionate use of convalescent plasma for severely ill COVID-19 patients.
In April, it allowed patients with serious or immediately life-threatening cases to access convalescent plasma under the “Expanded Access Program.”
FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn called the use of products made from a recovered patient’s blood to potentially treat COVID-19 patients ” an important area of research.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Plasma transfusions boost survival of coronavirus patients, study says