COVID-19 Plasma Donor: “You Might Save a Life If You Sit for 45 Minutes and Get a Gatorade”

Scripps Green Hospital using plasma to treat the coronavirus, according to health officials

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"We kind of walked around with this feeling of immunity, right? This feeling that you have tiger's blood, and we were trying to figure out, 'How can we go help people?' "

That's how recently recovered patient Robert Riordan reacted after overcoming a bout with COVID-19. Fortunately for the Encinitas man, it wasn't long after his illness that he was contacted by Scripps Health.

"We're regular blood donors and it was, 'How can we help this situation?' So when I got the call from Scripps, it was a no-brainer. Right?" Riordan said. "It was like, 'Ok, hey, you might be able to save somebody's life if you go sit in this chair for 45 minutes and you get a Gatorade.' Right? It's like, 'Hey, of course I'm gonna go do that.' "

Scripps Health enlisted Riordan in a trial for an experimental convalescent plasma therapy that was tested in the U.S. in late March in New York and Texas and was also employed in the treatment of five patients in Shenzhen, China, the results of which were written up and published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Society.

"What we're doing is we're collecting antibodies from plasma," said Dr. James Mason, the medical director of the blood and marrow transplant program at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla. "When someone's ill with a viral infection, after a period of days or weeks, they begin to make neutralizing antibodies, small protein molecules that help destroy the virus…. The basis of this is to collect, from the blood, these antibodies and then give them to another individual to help treat the infection."

Riordan, who donated his plasma on Wednesday. was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 19 after a ski trip to Colorado. He has been symptom-free since March 27. He's the second person who went to Scripps to donate convalescent plasma, which will be transfused into a patient being treated in the intensive care unit at Scripps Green. The first convalescent plasma collection and transfusion took place at Scripps Green with a different donor and patient on April 1.

While the therapy is still experimental, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on March 24 allowed doctors to use plasma from recovered patients to treat those with “serious or immediately life-threatening COVID-19 infections” under an emergency approval system. Doctors can apply to the FDA to use it for their patients, and the agency will review the requests quickly and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The patients in China recovered to varying degrees after their treatments, and while the study was small and only observational, it raises the possibility that convalescent plasma therapy may be helpful in treating this patient population.

The strategy of transfusing convalescent plasma has been used in the past to treat viral disease outbreaks of polio, measles and mumps before a vaccine was available. More recently, it was used with some effectiveness to treat patients with SARS and Ebola. During an evolving pandemic like COVID-19, plasma-based treatments can provide a critical stopgap while therapies and vaccines are being developed, a Scripps statement said.

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