Blood of recovered coronavirus patients could be used to treat the seriously ill

Scientists in the United States believe the "Stone Age" approach of plasma transfusion could save lives

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Credit: Mikhail Japaridze/TASS

Blood from recovered victims of coronavirus could soon be used to treat patients who are battling the disease and even help vulnerable people avoid the illness altogether.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, are waiting approval to start a human trial to see if the blood plasma of people who have already fought off the disease can help boost the immune system.

The approach was used during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic before vaccines or antivirals were available.

It relies on the fact that the blood of patients who have recovered contains powerful antibodies trained to fight the virus.

There is currently no treatment for coronavirus, and vaccines are unlikely to be available until the end of the year at the earliest.

"Giving serum from newly recovered patients is a Stone Age approach, but historically it has worked," said Dr Jeffrey Henderson, Associate Professor of Medicine and Molecular Microbiology at Washington University.

"This is how we used to prevent and treat viral infections like measles, mumps, polio and influenza, but once vaccines were developed, the technique understandably fell out of favour and many people forgot about it. 

"Until we have specific drugs and vaccines for Covid-19, this approach could save lives."

During the Spanish flu pandemic doctors also had no treatments and so instead used the blood serum from recovered flu patients. In many cases the patients recovered.

Plasma and serum are clear fluid portions of blood, and both contain antibodies, but plasma also contains some other helpful proteins lacking in serum.

More recently, plasma transfusion was used experimentally to treat small numbers of people during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002 and 2003. 

Sars  is caused by a coronavirus closely related to the one that causes Covid-19.

In one study, Sars patients who received plasma transfusions recovered faster than those who did not.

Now Washington University has joined forces with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to launch the first trial. 

They submitted their proposal to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on March 18 and are awaiting approval so they can get started. 

"This is something that can be done very quickly, much faster than drug development, because it basically involves donating and transfusing plasma," added Dr Henderson. 

"As soon as we have individuals who have recovered from Covid-19 walking around, we have potential donors, and we can use the blood bank system to obtain plasma and distribute it to the patients who need it.

"Everyone’s excited about this. If it works, it could provide a lifeline at this early stage of the pandemic."

The team plans to ask patients who recover from coronavirus to donate their blood, from which plasma would be isolated. 

After screening for toxins and viruses, the plasma would be transfused into sick people or those at high risk to prime their systems against the virus.