Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) is playing a vital role in New York City’s community response during the COVID-19 pandemic. HSS is now a participating site in a nationwide program testing convalescent plasma, a treatment that involves infusing hospitalized patients with antibody-rich plasma donated by people who have recovered from the disease.
There is no proven treatment for COVID-19, but researchers around the globe are investigating different approaches that may help critically ill people recover. “Based on very small case studies, convalescent plasma is one of the more promising therapies that are currently available,” says Chad M. Craig, MD, MBA, FACP, an internal medicine specialist at HSS and primary investigator for the HSS site. “To help patients at our hospital and other hospitals in New York, we are asking our community members and any New Yorkers who have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19 to donate plasma through the New York Blood Center.”
Plasma is the clear portion of blood. It contains antibodies, small proteins that the immune system creates to defeat invading bacteria and viruses. People who recover from COVID-19 produce antibodies that recognize portions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and destroy it. “Infused antibodies attack the virus directly but also have indirect benefits that allow the body to create its own defenses to fight the infection,” says Dr. Craig.
Convalescent plasma has been tried as a treatment approach during other pandemics, including the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920. During more recent outbreaks, researchers found it was beneficial against coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), as well as H1N1 influenza.
Two studies in China earlier this year showed promising results for convalescent plasma in about 15 patients who were severely sick with COVID-19. Many improved shortly after receiving an infusion and had no severe side effects. However, this evidence was from a small number of patients.
The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the emergency use of convalescent plasma for patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 and outlined donor eligibility requirements. Donors must have a documented positive test result for the virus and cannot donate until at least 14 days have passed since the last day of experiencing symptoms.
Hospitals can seek approval from the FDA to use convalescent plasma on an emergency, case-by-case basis or by enrolling in expanded access programs. HSS has pursued both avenues for gaining access to convalescent plasma for eligible patients.
The expanded access program at HSS is part of a large national study led by the Mayo Clinic. Participation provides HSS with a more efficient way to access plasma on an ongoing basis for COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized and have a high risk of progressing to severe or life-threatening disease.
HSS suspended all nonessential surgeries on March 17, 2020 and made bed capacity, supplies and staff available to help neighboring hospitals. As the burden on the New York City healthcare system grew, HSS opened up over 200 beds and started receiving COVID-positive patients on April 1, 2020.
“At HSS, specialists with expertise in internal medicine, rheumatology, infectious diseases and critical care are working together to help patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19,” Dr. Craig says. “Convalescent plasma has the potential to shorten the severity or length of illness. We sincerely hope that this method will save lives, but we won’t know until we try.”
There is no cost to patients being treated with convalescent plasma as part of the program. Donating plasma involves the same process as donating blood and takes about 45 minutes. One plasma donation could potentially save the lives of up to four patients. If you are willing to donate, visit the New York Blood Center for more information and to submit a donor request form.