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Blood Plasma Treatments Could Be Helpful For COVID-19 Patients


Medical therapy that's been used for more than a century is being tried to treat patients with COVID-19. It involves taking plasma from COVID patients who've recovered and giving it to patients who still have the disease. It's called convalescent plasma. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca joins us now. Joe, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: So everything old is new again. Tell us, please, about how plasma factors into this pandemic.

PALCA: Well, patients who get a disease like COVID-19, a viral disease, and survive have made antibodies. Their immune systems have made antibodies to this particular invading organism. And, presumably, the antibodies stick around for a while and it's in the plasma of their blood. So, presumably, if you take that plasma and give it to someone who's sick at the time, those antibodies might be helpful in making the sick person well.

SIMON: And from what has been seen so far, does it seem to work?

PALCA: Yeah. It's been done in tens of thousands of people now for COVID, and the answer is, yeah, kind of, sort of, maybe. It's not a miracle cure where you can, you know, leap out of bed and say everything's fine. At the same time, it has helped reduce mortality it seems. And it is safe to use. That's been the main objection. Some people said, oh, well, this might cause more problems than it actually solves, but that doesn't seem to be the case. So it is being used quite widely, and there are some studies that will be showing whether it's actually effective or not.

SIMON: Based on my vast medical knowledge, if there are antibodies in convalescent plasma that are helpful to patients, couldn't you just give them antibodies instead of a transfusion?

PALCA: Well, Professor Dr. Simon, that's true. You could do that. In fact, that's what people do. They concentrate these antibodies into something which is called hyperimmune globulin, which is a package of the proteins that are the antibodies that you could actually and directly inject into people. And this has the advantage of your being able to somewhat better characterize what's in the soup. I mean, if you just give someone plasma, you don't know exactly what you're giving them. In the hyperimmune globulin, you have a better sense of exactly what's going on.

SIMON: Are these antibodies available only from someone who's recovered from COVID-19 or is there a way to make them?

PALCA: Well, interestingly enough, you can make them from a nonhuman. There's a company in Sioux Falls, S.D., that is using cows. These are special cows, I should say. They are cows that have been given a human-like immune system. And if you inject them with what amounts to a COVID vaccine, it's the - not the virus itself, but things in the virus that cause an immune response - these cows will churn out buckets of antibodies in their plasma, which can then be used to concentrate them and turned into a therapy. There's another company that's using horses to do something similar. And this has actually been used in the past, also, using horses to generate vaccines or therapies for certain infectious agents.

SIMON: Any time frame in which some of these new antibody therapies might be available for COVID patients?

PALCA: Well, the cow-based ones are supposed to be going into human trials soon. There's other ones that are coming along that are even more specifically targeted. These are single antibodies that have been purified and grown, or sometimes antibodies in a cocktail of two. These are coming along. They're about to be tested in humans pretty soon, and scientists are pretty enthusiastic about their potential.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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