“It is definitely overwhelming to know that in my blood, there may be answers,” Pinckney said. 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 novel coronavirus.
There’s no proof it will work. But former patients in Houston and New York were early donors, and now hospitals and blood centres are getting ready for potentially hundreds of survivors to follow.
“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 under way, “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, it’s “a stopgap measure that we can put into place quickly,” said Dr Jeffrey Henderson of Washington University School of Medicine. This “is not a cure per se, but rather it is a way to reduce the severity of illness,” he said.
Doctors don’t know how long survivors’ antibodies against COVID19 will persist. But for now, “they’re the safest ones on the street,” said Dr Rebecca Haley of Bloodworks Northwest. “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 hospitals 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.
Would-be donors can’t just show up at a blood centre. Those with a proven infection who’ve been symptomfree for several weeks must get tested to ensure the virus is gone. They also must be healthy enough to meet the other requirements for blood donation. “You don’t want to take plasma from someone who had a mediocre immune response. That wouldn’t be helpful,” said Dr Julie Ledgerwood of the National Institutes of Health.
NIH researchers are measuring survivors’ antibody levels to learn how strong the vaccines under development must be to protect. Other teams are hunting which antibodies are most potent, to copy in a lab and turn into drugs.
But donations from people like Pinckney could be used as fast as blood centres can process it. She got sick the first week of March.
“I remember being on my bathroom floor crying and praying,” the 39-year-old said. So when Mount Sinai, which diagnosed her, called Pinckney to check on her recovery and ask if she’d consider donating, she didn’t hesitate. “It’s humbling. And for me, it’s also a beacon of hope for someone else,” she said.
— Additional reporting by Allen G Breed