Blood from COVID-19 patients may help treat disease, researchers say

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Clinicians could consider using "convalescent serum" — the blood serum of recovered novel coronavirus patients — to prevent and treat COVID-19, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

In a viewpoint article published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, two Johns Hopkins researchers argue that since there are no vaccines, drugs or treatments for COVID-19, collecting blood serum or plasma from recovered patients may prevent infection and treat those already infected.

Blood serum or plasma from recovered patients can be screened for virus-neutralizing antibodies. Serum that contains these antibodies can be administered to high-risk patients, such as those with underlying medical conditions, healthcare providers and those exposed to confirmed cases of COVID-19. It can also be used to reduce symptoms and death risk in those with confirmed cases of the disease.

Convalescent serum has been used to curb viral disease epidemics in the past, including measles, mumps and influenzas, in the early 20th century. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2006 examined the use of use of convalescent serum in 1,703 patients during the 1918 flu pandemic and suggests that those who received serum had lower death risk.

"I'm an infectious disease doctor who is interested in history," Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, chair of the molecular microbiology and immunology department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, and one of the authors of the article, told NBC News. "I knew the history of what was done in the early 20th century with epidemics. They didn’t have vaccines then, they didn't have any drugs then — just like the situation we face now."

Convalescent serum has also been used during more recent viral epidemics, including the SARS epidemic in 2003, the MERS epidemic in 2012 and the 2013 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

A study published in 2005 in the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases shows that convalescent serum was used to treat 80 SARS patients in Hong Kong. The study shows patients had improved outcomes and shorter hospital stays when treated with convalescent serum early in their illness.

The article's authors also detail how organizations can deploy convalescent serum therapy for their patients, including working with blood banks to process the serum donations. Deploying this therapy will require broad coordination, the authors write.

"Hence, as we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we recommend that institutions consider the emergency use of convalescent [serum] and begin preparations as soon as possible. Time is of the essence," they write.

Editor's note: This article was updated March 17 at 7:30 a.m.

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