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With researchers around the world racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, attention is increasingly turning to a potential stop-gap measure – convalescent plasma. The yellowish gold part of our blood that contains antibodies to help fight viruses is the focus of research in labs and hospitals and shows early signs of promise. John Yang reports.
As researchers race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, attention is increasingly turning to a potential stopgap measure called convalescent plasma.
As John Yang reports, this element of our blood is the focus of research in labs and hospitals, and shows early signs of promise.
Donating plasma was the first thing professional photographer Diana Berrent wanted to do after she recovered from coronavirus in March.
If you look at the pictures of me doing it, I had an ear-to-ear grin throughout the entire thing.
This is it. You're looking at my plasma.
Now she does every week.
I mean no disrespect to my family, but I would put the experience up along with, you know, getting married and having children. There are very few opportunities in a lifetime to literally save another person's life.
Berrent is one of a growing number of COVID-19 survivors giving what's called convalescent plasma, plasma with coronavirus antibodies, the immune system's natural response to the infection.
That's aiding researchers who are trying to find out whether those antibodies are effective in helping others fight the deadly disease.
Antibodies are one of the things your body produces naturally to fight bugs.
They help kill the bugs a variety of ways and so-called neutralize the virus. And if people have a high viral load, and they're in the midst of infection, we can sort of jump-start their immune response by giving them antibodies we have harvested from others.
Dr. Michael Joyner at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic is helping to coordinate a program at 2,000 sites across the country to harvest and distribute plasma.
It allows really almost any hospitalized patient to be eligible, so, anybody who's at risk for developing severe disease.
I think the consensus is, based on past experience, that earlier is better, and that you're going to struggle with individuals who've been in the ICU for a long, long time.
Trying convalescent plasma is not a new idea. It was used with success in the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Asian influenza spreads rapidly.
In more recent flu outbreaks.
… entire family at the same time.
And against infections like polio before vaccines were available.
But it failed during the 2014 Ebola crisis. Around the world, researchers believe it's worthwhile to try.
I think you have to be objective and, again, kind of balance between being a hopeful physician and a cautious scientist.
Experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore recently launched a clinical trial designed to introduce plasma to those at high-risk of exposure, like front-line health care workers, to see if it helps prevent infection.
Dr. Evan Bloch of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:
It would offer, you know, an intervention, which is readily available and scalable.
So, I think, you know, in some ways, you know, the idea of prevention being better than cure is what really comes to the fore.
The process of giving plasma, called plasmapheresis, takes longer than blood donation and requires special equipment. A centrifuge separates the blood cells, which are returned to the donor, from the yellowish-gold plasma.
Some blood collection locations, like the New York Blood Center, where Diana Berrent donates, test the plasma for COVID-19 antibodies. but not every donation site is required to be as rigorous.
Right now, plasma supply cannot meet demand. Enter the group Berrent founded, Survivor Corps.
This is literally a call to arms, I mean, literally, arms, that we could, as a massive movement of survivors, we could do everything in our power to support the medical and scientific academic community in every study that they are doing, every clinical trial, donate our convalescent plasma, that we could literally be part of the solution.
In a month, we have over 40,000 members, and I am proud to say that we are flooding these programs with volunteers.
In suburban Columbus, Ohio, it was volunteer donors who gave hope to the family of high school senior Nick Butler. He has an immune disorder, so his body could not fight the coronavirus when he got sick.
Paul Butler is Nick's father.
He is not — like, his immune system is not like yours and mine. It does not have those antibodies. And the difference is, his body doesn't produce them. So we actually inject them.
Nick was in Columbus' Nationwide Children's Hospital, with his father by his side, for 15 days, much of it in intensive care.
He lost 35 pounds, and he really hadn't eaten in three weeks. And his cough had gotten really violent. His heart had arrhythmias. It got enlarged. The kidneys numbers went sky high. His liver had issues. So, each one of those brings in another team of doctors to kind of evaluate.
Doctors gave Nick a litany of drugs, including remdesivir, the antiviral medication that has since been given emergency FDA approval to treat COVID-19. But his condition worsened, and he was put on a ventilator.
They brought in, like, I don't know, 10 or 12 doctors, nurses. They're bringing equipment in and they're wheeling stuff out. I mean, it was just crazy how fast all this happened.
So, they ask, you know, like, if his heart stops beating while he's on this ventilator, what's your plan? And I'm like, we want to resuscitate. We want to bring him back. And I'm like, can I call my wife and this call?
We got FaceTime and we talked to him. And, you know, basically, we told him we loved him.
And that was it.
While Nick clung to life, a family friend, Erin Galloway, launched a social media search for convalescent plasma donors.
You are here. You are fighting for Nick, just like we are.
Galloway laid out the qualifications donors had to meet to be a match.
You have tested positive for COVID-19 and you are 14 days' symptom free.
Around the same time, college junior Paige Fallon was coming out of quarantine.
I have no idea what plasma is. I have — I have never given blood in my life. Like, I have no idea what's going on. But I'm like, OK, I mean, I'm in quarantine. I'm bored. If I can help save someone's life, bonus.
Fallon had been on her study abroad in Italy, making stops all over Europe, before it was clear just how bad the pandemic was.
Prague is where things kind of got a little iffy. I started having breathing problems, and I just felt like I was in a room full of dust.
Back home in Columbus, Ohio, her coronavirus test was positive.
But there was a silver lining: She could try to be a donor for Nick Butler, a total stranger. An e-mail confirmed she was a perfect match.
Just receiving that e-mail and, like, something positive coming out of something so negative in so many people's lives, is like — it's a very cool thing to get to experience. And I'm lucky I even got to experience that.
Like, how much more positive news can you get than the fact that you're going to help save somebody's life?
Her plasma donation made at an American Red Cross center became Nick's fourth transfusion. His doctors aren't sure whether it was the medications, the convalescent plasma, or both, that ultimately pulled Nick through.
He's now home, literally running on the road to recovery toward his next goal, starting college in the fall.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.
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John Yang is the anchor of PBS News Weekend and a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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