36 National Convalescent Plasma Project
For joining forces to quickly test a COVID-19 treatment
Could an old remedy fight a new disease? That’s what a swarm of scientists, doctors and healthcare officials from 57 U.S. organizations set out to determine with the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. What started with an academic paper quickly transformed into a virtual effort to collaborate, explore and accelerate the development of a possible treatment for those afflicted by the coronavirus.
Obtained from people who have recovered from a disease, blood plasma with antibodies from that disease has been injected into sick patients to treat everything from measles to chickenpox in the century since its discovery. Those antibodies ideally boost the body’s own disease-fighting capabilities. A huge selling point for using convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19: Unlike vaccines or newly developed drugs, the therapy could, in principle, be made available very rapidly.
First, though, medical experts needed to test whether convalescent plasma works on the coronavirus. Amazon Web Services and Michigan State University IT teamed up to create a site that connects healthcare providers, patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and are willing to donate plasma, and those considering the treatment. Eager to identify ways to keep its workers safe from the virus, Amazon deployed the site in one day. The company also helped the Michigan State IT team create a chatbot on the website to give visitors immediate answers to questions like: Who can donate plasma? Who’s eligible for treatment?
Since then, project leaders have been conducting studies of patients receiving convalescent plasma, including one published in May that established the treatment’s safety.
“Almost everything we see is very promising, but we don’t yet have the definitive results we’d like to have,” says Dr. Nigel Paneth, professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and pediatrics in the college of human medicine at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA. When convalescent plasma was used for pneumococcal pneumonia in the pre-antibiotic era, it was felt to be most effective if administered during the first three days of illness, Paneth says. That level of therapeutic specificity has not yet been established.
Still, the pace of progress has been brisk. Many hospitals have shared data without requiring conventional data-use agreements, enabling researchers and the Mayo Clinic institutional review board to approve protocols quickly. “Most institutions have recognized that research regulations are perfectly legitimate, but in the middle of an epidemic, there is a pressing need to move more rapidly,” Paneth says.