The Tampa veterans’ hospital is joining several hospitals in Florida in a national study looking at whether blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can be used to treat patients with the disease.
The Mayo Clinic is running the program with support from the federal government. OneBlood is helping collect the plasma donations locally.
The theory is that people who recover from the coronavirus, known as convalescent patients, have developed antibodies in their blood to fight it. When the blood is transfused into a critically ill patient, it could help them get better.
Convalescent plasma is considered investigational therapy, meaning it’s not yet approved for general use by regulatory authorities like the Food and Drug Administration.
But the therapy has been used since the 1890s to treat diseases like measles and was used in the recent Ebola and SARS epidemics, according to Dr. Sandra Gompf, infectious disease chief at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine.
There is some anecdotal evidence of the treatment helping COVID-19 patients. Earlier this month, an Orlando man was on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma when he received a transfusion of convalescent plasma, and has since returned home to his family.
But Gompf said it’s critical to have scientific evidence to support the theory, and said it’s helpful to have a national collaboration of hospitals working together to find it.
"It does allow us to have a much larger pool of plasma, and a lot more positive matches to the patient that we're trying to transfuse," she explained.
The Tampa VA hospital is not treating any COVID-19 patients now, but Gompf said it's important to have this as a treatment option if necessary.
The study is will proceed for an indefinite amount of time as response efforts to the pandemic continue.
“Science takes time, and we all want an overnight solution, we all wish this was over and we had a pill to give everybody,” said Gompf.
“But it will take time to collect the data, it will take time to gather donors and process blood, so it’s not going to be an overnight thing. But I’m hoping in the next few weeks should we have someone who needs the treatment, that we’ll be able to offer it much more quickly than we could before.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Mayo Clinic reported 2,144 sites participating in the program, including other Florida hospitals and other VA institutions. A total of 6,563 patients have registered, and more than 3,000 transfusions have already occurred across the country.
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