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Convalescent plasma therapy is a possible help against COVID-19, but don't put your mask away, First Coast doctor says

A day after the FDA approved expanded use of a COVID-19 antibody booster treatment, a look at its effectiveness and how COVID-19 survivors can help in the fight.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The new added backing from the government of an existing treatment against COVID-19 is raising hope but also questions.

With “convalescent plasma” therapy, a patient struggling to develop antibodies against coronavirus receives plasma donated by a person who has overcome the illness.

“This is a powerful therapy,” President Trump said in a news conference Sunday moments after the FDA announced an emergency use authorization allowing for expanded application of the therapy. The president said the treatment has reduced mortality by 35 percent.

But First Coast infectious disease specialist Dr. Mohammed Reza is among physicians offering a more measured optimism.

“I think that this could help,” Reza told First Coast News in an interview Monday, “but at this time the jury is still out. We need more data, is the reality.”

The reason, he said, is that studies called “randomized control trials” haven’t been done on convalescent plasma therapy yet.

Those studies entail offering differently structured courses of treatment to different patients – some including convalescent plasma therapy, some not – then comparing results “over a period of time,” said Reza, “with not just a couple of patients but as many patients as you can get on the different arms of the study.”

He offered the situation regarding hydroxychloroquine as an example, saying initial studies showed potential benefits.

“But then the randomized control trials showed us that it really didn’t," Reza said. "In some cases, it had worse outcomes in those patients. We’re going to have to do the same thing with convalescent serum.”

The use of convalescent plasma therapy isn’t new. For example, blood collection non-profit OneBlood says it began collecting specifically for the plasma of COVID-19 survivors in April. Spokeswoman Susan Forbes tells First Coast News that OneBlood has seen a more than 500-percent increase in demand from hospitals for the plasma since then.

Forbes said the FDA’s emergency use authorization “is only going to drive up usage even further.”

With that intensified need, she urged that anyone who has overcome COVID-19 and been symptom-free at least 14 days donate blood as soon and often as possible.

“You are needed now, you are needed going forward," she said. "You hold a potential key in helping many of these patients recover.”

But there are some who have had coronavirus and don’t even know it. Reza said the medical community estimates about 40 percent of all infected are asymptomatic. While that makes many people unsuspecting transmitters while they’re sick, it also makes them unknowingly potential helpers in the fight for others after they recover.

Forbes said OneBlood doesn’t diagnose whether a donor is currently ill but strongly discourages anyone who feels sick from even trying to give blood. But OneBlood does test for antibodies and notifies those donors within two to four days.

“We are letting them know that information and encouraging them to become convalescent plasma donors,” she said.

Yet another question that continues to surface is whether an individual can have more than one bout with COVID-19, and if so, whether that actually gives researchers an advantage in developing a vaccine.

Reza said it’s still not certain whether or not a person can suffer COVID-19 multiple times, but any cure found more easily in that event would likely be impermanent.

“The vaccine may give us some protection, but it might not be a lifelong protection that we get from other vaccines,” he cautioned, likening it to flu vaccines that require updating every year.

Speaking of flu vaccines, Reza strongly emphasized the importance of people getting their shots ahead of the upcoming flu season, warning that the dangers of simultaneous COVID-19 and flu infection are significant.

“Going into this winter, you want as much of that armor - your own body’s army to be able to fight off infections - as you can,” Reza said.

He also reminded that even if increased convalescent plasma therapy puts a notable dent in the COVID-19 crisis, it’s no time to let one’s guard down.

“It’s still the importance of wearing a face mask when going out, you’re social distancing, hand hygiene - still stays true as it did at the beginning of this pandemic,” he said.

For information about donating blood and learning whether you have COVID-19 antibodies, go to https://www.oneblood.org/.