COVID-19 Plasma: A Breakthrough or an Experiment?

    24 August 2020

    Convalescent plasma, which has long been used to treat diseases, has become the latest issue in the race to find treatment for COVID-19.

    On Sunday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would permit the emergency use of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19 patients. Trump called it "a breakthrough."

    However, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday warned that the treatment is still experimental. The group described the evidence in support of the treatment as "low quality."

    Trump made the plasma announcement after his administration accused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of delaying in order to hurt his re-election chances this November.

    The emergency approval makes it easier for some patients to get the treatment. However, it is not the same as full FDA approval for treatment.

    In its announcement, the FDA said, "it is reasonable to believe that COVID-19 convalescent plasma may be effective in lessening the severity or shortening the length of COVID-19 illness in some hospitalized patients." The agency said that more human trials are needed, "as COVID-19 convalescent plasma does not yet represent a new standard of care based on the current available evidence."

    Soumya Swaminathan is Chief Scientist at the WHO. She said only a few human trials of convalescent plasma have produced results. "At the moment, it's still very low-quality evidence," Swaminathan told reporters Monday.

    The WHO said one Chinese study showed plasma from people who have recovered from coronavirus failed to make a difference in hospitalized patients, while another showed it can lower the risk of death.

    FILE - Convalescent plasma from a recovered coronavirus disease patient. (REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo)
    FILE - Convalescent plasma from a recovered coronavirus disease patient. (REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo)

    What is convalescent plasma?

    The treatment involves giving plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to sick ones. Plasma is the liquid part of blood. Plasma from recovered patients is filled with antibodies, proteins that can kill harmful viruses and bacteria.

    The treatment was used during the 1918 flu pandemic. It was also used to fight several other infections before modern medicine found new anti-viral drugs.

    Earlier this month, researchers at the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota, reported data from its experimental program to treat COVID-19 patients around the U.S. with convalescent plasma.

    The program called "Expanded Access Program" was not an official study. It did not provide enough information to guarantee that the treatment cured COVID-19. It was "designed to increase access to investigational convalescent plasma and evaluate the safety of this experimental therapy."

    The health organization said 70,00 patients received the treatment. It found fewer deaths among those who received the plasma within three days of COVID-19 diagnosis.

    Dr. Michael Joyner is lead researcher for the program. He said, "Our hope is that the safety findings and possible efficacy signals could inform the body of knowledge about the use of convalescent plasma to modify the course of COVID-19."

    I'm Caty Weaver.

    Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English with additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press. Caty Weaver was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    convalescent - adj. recovering from an illness

    plasma - n. the watery part of blood that contains blood cells

    illness - n. a condition of being unhealthy, sick

    standard - n. a level quality or achievement that is considered acceptable

    pandemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people around the world

    access - n. a way of getting something

    evaluate - v. to judge the value or condition carefully