Plasma Therapy for Covid-19: How Effective Is This Treatment?

In the war against the global coronavirus pandemic, every weapon in our arsenal counts. Is plasma therapy one of them?

Ishani Nandi Published Apr 28, 2020 17:49:56 IST
Plasma Therapy for Covid-19: How Effective Is This Treatment? Pixabay

A massive undertaking involving researchers and experts around the world has been under way to devise a targeted drug or vaccine to cure Covid-19 for months now. The World Health Organization’s Solidarity project, for example, includes participation by around 100 countries as 21 April, to compare treatment options and collecting invaluable data from studies and trials conducted worldwide.

However, while the hunt is on, hospitals and public health authorities need to deal with the existing burden of 3 million confirmed Covid-19 cases globally, and without a solid medical protocol, flattening the curve through containment and experimental treatments may be key to holding the tide. One in particular has proven to be an effective and feasible weapon in this battle—plasma therapy.

The treatment

According to the head of internal medicine and group medical director at Delhi’s Max Hospital, Saket, Dr Sandeep Budhiraja, who is spearheading the institution’s nationwide efforts to combat the pandemic, “Plasma therapy is not a new line of treatment—it has been used in the past whenever we confront a new disease for which no specific therapies are available. The treatment plan is based on the principle that a person who has recovered from the Covid-19 infection would have developed antibodies in their blood which allows the body to fight and defeat the virus. If we can remove and harvest these and give it to a Covid-positive patient, they will have the necessary means to recover—it is what is known as passive immunity, immunity offered by a pre-formed antibody.”

How does it work?

Potential plasma donors must meet certain criteria—they must have recovered fully form the infection for at least two weeks with no sign of recurrence, which is established when they are able test negative for Covid-19 at least twice. Donors must also not have any other type of infections, such as Hepatitis B or C, or HIV. Once these parameters are established, the person’s blood is run through a plasma separator, a process which takes around an hour or two. One person’s donation can extract up to 500 ml of plasma. “One Covid-19 positive person can be given around 200 ml, so actually each donor can help the treatment of two corona patients,” Budhiraja says. “Choosing the right people to donate is an important first step, as is educating those who have recovered, about their potentially game-changing role in combating this pandemic.”

How effective is it?

According to latest numbers, the world currently has 8,95,000 Covid-19-recovered people, so the number of people with the potential to help is at least twice that. If, that is, the treatment protocol works and a number of countries, including South Korea, China, the UK and now the US seem to think so, albeit on a trial basis. “Studies clearly show a benefit, especially in people who are moderate to severe cases,” says Budhiraja. In fact, the first Indian to be administered plasma therapy—a 49-year-old male—was treated at Max Saket and, while in a state critical enough to need respiratory support, has now recovered fully. Other states, such as Kerala, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are now following suit, with approvals from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in place. While this is certainly reason to be optimistic, Budhiraja cautions, “A lot of antiviral treatments are in the experimental stage and without any specific treatment plan currently in existence, anything that has proven success is a good way to go. But I can’t say that this is a magic potion. We need more trials to gather enough data to know more.”

Can this become the answer?

What we do know is that implementing plasma therapy is no pipe dream. Comparatively low expense levels, pre-established protocols, standard blood tests that are typically done for a voluntary blood donation, and plasma separators that most NABL-approved blood banks already have are just some of the reasons plasma therapy may be easy to implement nation-wide. Most importantly, “No harm can be done to the patient through the administration of plasma therapy, regardless of its benefits,” Budhiraja explains.

Gaining approvals for trials, however, is still an uphill battle with long waiting periods and heavy paperwork involved. “Of course there are things that are not in the government’s hands but accepting that we should try new ideas, a proactive approach and fast-tracking clearances is critical in times like these,” he adds.

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