A Chinese clinic is performing plasma transfusions against COVID-19. Is that a reach?

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As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to drag on without signs of letting up, the race to develop therapies and vaccines has become an international research and development priority. Public health officials offer conservative estimates of at least a year’s wait before anything substantial hits the market. One avenue researchers in China have explored has turned more than a few heads: plasma transfusions.

According to a report in Reuters, “Doctors in Shanghai are using infusions of blood plasma from people who have recovered from the coronavirus to treat those still battling the infection, reporting some encouraging preliminary results, a Chinese professor said on Monday.”

A spokesman for the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, said that the hospital had set up a special clinic to administer plasma therapy to patients positive for the coronavirus and was selecting patients who were willing to donate.

While it may sound a little far-fetched, it actually is not. On the contrary, there is considerable precedent for the process of transferring plasma from formerly sick patients to those that have yet to recover.

Technically called hyperimmune immunoglobulin (antibody) therapy, the treatment is a more specialized form of immunoglobulin therapy. The plasma contains a high concentration of antibodies that specifically target a certain antigen or group of antigens, in this case to the novel coronavirus. Plasma donors of hyperimmune immunoglobulins have high titles of the desired antibody. In the case of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, the antibodies are specific to COVID-19. Once administered, the ultimate goal is to provide passive immunity against coronavirus infection.

There are many common examples of hyperimmune globulins on the market. These include treatments for botulism, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis A and B, rabies, tetanus, and vaccinia virus.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, explained how the therapy should be administered to reporters in Geneva.

“Because what hyperimmune globulin does is it concentrates the antibodies in a recovered patient. You are essentially giving the new victim’s immune system a boost of antibodies to hopefully get them through the very difficult phase.

“So it must be given at the right time, because it mops up the virus in the system, and it just gives the new patient’s immune system a vital push at the time it needs it. But it has to be carefully timed and it’s not always successful.”

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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