Lindsey Wasson / Reuters
If the rabies animal is bitten or scratched, your doctor may give you a shot so that the virus does not stop you and cause an infection. The same concept has now been tested for coronavirus.
Most people who develop COVID-19 produce antibodies in their blood that protect them from re-infection. A study is currently underway to see if an infusion of these antibodies can protect individuals who have been exposed to the virus and are at high risk of infection.
One of the first volunteers in this study is a doctor who treats transplant patients at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Jonathan Orens had a close relationship with the coronavirus, which included his family rather than him.
His daughter from Los Angeles wanted to return home next to her sister, who was about to give birth to her first baby. Orens says the traveling daughter carefully guarded her health in Los Angeles and did everything she could think of to be safe on the fly to Baltimore.
“She was wearing a mask, gloves, sanitary ware, napkins,” he says. “The load on the plane was relatively low.” They chose the fourth of July as their day of travel, knowing that even fewer people could travel that day. “We actually bought two seats in a row to keep it away from everyone else.”
She wore masks through airports and drove back to her parents ’home. Once there she moved away from them.
Just to make sure, about a week after she arrived, she went with her parents to test for coronavirus.
Although she had no symptoms, “she was positive,” Orens says. “And luckily my wife and I were negative.” However, they still had a high risk of contracting the disease due to close contact with their daughter.
Luckily, one of Orens ’colleagues, Hopkins, had just begun a study to see if purified blood serum from people who recovered from COVID-19, called healing plasma, could prevent someone else. Orens and his wife, who are 60 years old, are at higher risk of being infected with coronavirus. They signed for an experimental treatment.
Half of the people in this clinical trial receive an infusion of intravenous infusion plasma, and the other half an infusion of blood serum that was donated before the pandemic (so it did not contain protective antibodies). Neither the participants nor the doctors treating them know who gets what.
The infusion took about an hour, Orens says. “I didn’t feel anything but a fingerprint from the IV, and we were on our merry path.”
He is now returning to the clinic for regular blood tests.
“We will follow him to find out if he has any symptoms and if he is not positive,” says Dr. Shmuel Shoham, who is leading the study. Shoham says he plans to admit up to 500 patients, but at best, if the treatment is very effective, he won’t need to study as many people.
In addition to recruiting patients in Baltimore, “we currently have sites in Houston, sites in Alabama,” Shoham says. “We’re opening additional sites in Dallas and Arizona. We have sites all over Southern California.”
He was also involved in a second study looking at whether plasma would prevent a serious disease in people who are infected but not sick. He says that if both of these strategies work, they could help many people, even in the absence of vaccinations.
“It would give people a lot of confidence, I think, going back to school, going back to work,” he says, “because if someone gets sick, it’s not a tragedy – because we can protect them and protect those around us. “
These studies are among an increasing number of experiments involving healing plasma, both as a preventive measure and as a treatment for COVID-19.
Jessica Justman of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York tried to launch a similar study this spring. The good news for New York, but a complication of her research, was that the disease had hardly alleviated in the city and that she was unlucky enough to hire people.
“Compared to March and April, people have become less anxious, less frightened by COVID, and perhaps a little less likely to go for preventative treatment,” says Justman.
This situation could change if the disease spreads to its area again. And Justman says these ideas are worth implementing. A similar strategy affects other diseases, not only rabies, but also hepatitis B, botulism, and a potentially severe viral infection in babies called respiratory syncytial virus. In fact, this overall strategy has been around for over a century. Shohan was involved in a study that tried to use a healing serum to treat the flu, but it was not successful – so it’s not a cure.
Despite this strategy, drug companies are preparing to produce antibodies instead of collecting blood from recovering patients. But those products – monoclonal antibodies – would not be cheap.
“I like the idea of a ‘healing plasma’ so that if it works, I see it as something that could really be changed in a resource-constrained environment,” Justman said of developing countries where expensive drugs are often unavailable. “And I think that’s where renewable plasma has that huge potential.”
No one was ill in the Orens family – it was partly due to treatment or happiness, no one knows. Their quarantine period ended immediately after a quick trip to New York after the baby was born to see a new mother.
“The plan is to drive away after she’s taken out of the hospital. Hopefully things will go well and we’ll all be outside,” Orens says. “We’ll see the baby from afar. My daughter has already informed me that I’m not allowed anywhere to access the baby. And then we’ll turn around and go back to Baltimore.”
He barely hoped to welcome his first grandson, he says: “Still, that’s the price we have to pay to control this pandemic.”
Baltimore researchers hope to find out by mid-September whether the recovering plasma will actually vaccinate people from COVID-19.
You can contact NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris email@example.com.