Taking antibody-rich blood plasma from people who have recovered from coronavirus infections and transferring it to patients who are severely ill with COVID-19 does not appear to increase their risk of dying from the disease, according to initial results of a nationwide clinical trial.
What's more, the findings offer an early hint that the treatment may indeed save lives.
The early safety reading, posted this week to the MedRxiv website, likely clears the way for larger clinical trials to test two potential uses for plasma harvested from recovered COVID-19 patients: as a treatment for those in the midst of fighting a coronavirus infection, and as a way to protect essential workers who are routinely exposed to the virus from becoming seriously ill.
In the six months since a new coronavirus began sickening residents of Wuhan, China, scientists across the globe have sought to tap the power of recovered patients' antibodies to treat the newly infected. For infected patients, they hope a transfusion of so-called convalescent plasma will speed recovery and increase the odds of survival.
In addition, the antibodies might give healthcare workers and first responders at least a temporary vaccine-like protection known as "passive immunity," researchers have suggested.
But unlike a vaccine, which is not expected to become available before 2021, the supply of convalescent plasma is growing every day as more people join the ranks of the recovered. More than 1.5 million people worldwide have battled the coronavirus and survived, according to experts tracking the pandemic at Johns Hopkins University.
If further research bears out that it's safe and effective, treatment and prophylaxis with convalescent plasma could become common almost immediately since blood centers have already begun collecting blood from recovered individuals.
For now, the new results should be interpreted with caution because they have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal or thoroughly reviewed by independent scientists.
"It's a long way away from showing that this thing is going to be a game changer," said Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, who is leading the trial.
"It's a first step to prove that it's safe, and it sets the stage for efficacy trials," he added. "But we were very pleased."