Using Old Therapies to Beat a New Virus

by Newt Gingrich

A major key to beating the new coronavirus will be the development of a range of therapies which will let us lead normal lives as we defeat the disease.

Finding and developing therapies can occur much faster than finding a vaccine. Indeed, with HIV/AIDS we have yet to find a vaccine. In fact, a recent estimate is that 2030 might be the earliest we can expect a vaccine for that virus. However, the number of successful therapies has reduced the danger of HIV/AIDS dramatically.

With COVID-19, we have the advantage that over the years we have developed a number of therapies to help people recover from contagious diseases. One such therapy is the use of convalescent plasma. This uses the blood of someone who has survived the virus and recovered to help bolster the immune systems of the infected.

Convalescent serum (plasma) has been used in many pandemics in the past including the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1934 Convalescent Measles and the 1946 Mumps. The practice ended after the 1950s because of the discovery of blood-borne pathogens and because many new vaccines were developed which started to prevent these diseases.

More recently, convalescent plasma has been used in other coronavirus diseases, including SARS Coronavirus in 2003. There was an 80-patient study in Hong Kong which found that treatment with convalescent plasma had a higher discharge rate of patients than those who were not treated (58.3 percent vs. 15.6 percent).

In addition, in the current COVID-19 pandemic, both China and Italy have used convalescent plasma as a treatment and the emerging data is encouraging. However, it’s important to note this data is not based on controlled clinical trials.

Human convalescent serum is an option for prevention and treatment of COVID-19 disease that could be rapidly available when there are sufficient numbers of people who have recovered and can donate immunoglobulin-containing serum — or blood with developed anti-bodies to fight the virus.

While we are just starting to develop the ability to treat COVID-19 with convalescent plasma it has already saved lives.

When Stacie Rathel’s husband, 52-year-old Michael Kevin Rathel, was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Orlando Health Regional Medical Center infected with COVID-19, Stacie and her three children felt helpless. Because the virus is so infectious, they couldn’t go visit him. As his health condition worsened, Stacie reached out to a few close friends who in turn shared their story on social media.

Naturally, Stacie also kept in close contact with her husband’s doctors about his condition. As his health continued to decline to the point of being put on a ventilator, the doctors in Orlando suggested they try a convalescent plasma. This emerging therapeutic treatment for patients of COVID-19 was just OK’d by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this month.

There are a few known risks related to convalescent plasma treatment. Patients could potentially have a reaction to the transfusion or could be exposed to other infectious diseases. However, in early risk-benefit analysis convalescent plasma suggests benefits for all age groups.

Hoping to save Michael, the family agreed, and Stacie’s race to save her husband’s life began. But she had to find a blood donor that met strict criteria. The donor needed:

  • a prior diagnosis of COVID-19 documented from a lab test
  • complete resolution of symptoms at least 14 days prior to donation
  • to test negative for COVID-19
  • a blood type compatible with her husband’s
  • and the blood had to be donated through an FDA-approved, registered, and licensed facility

And, of course, there are forms that need to be filled out. Lots and lots of forms.

Stacie turned to social media to find her “needle in a haystack.” Thankfully, she found a donor match for her husband in COVID-19 survivor James Crocker. Her husband received the plasma treatment on April 8.

Michael came out of his medically induced coma on Easter morning. His wife shared a FaceTime video with the local news. He’s still on a ventilator, but he is breathing on his own 60 percent of the time. (Convalescent plasma usually takes three to five days to work.)

According Michael’s doctor, George Ralls, “He’s had steady improvement. It’s very promising. We’re very optimistic. We’re doing everything we can to lead him to a full recovery … It’s really encouraging to see the amount of patients willing to try anything.”

The major issue we face right now is the donated plasma from recovered COVID-19 survivors is scarce. We simply don’t have enough donors on a wide scale level. Although as we see people recover from COVID-19, the donor pool will grow larger with time. Then it’s a matter of collection, processing, and distribution.

If you know someone who has recovered from COVID-19, encourage them to look into donating blood to help save the lives of others. The FDA regulates who can donate convalescent plasma and how it must be collected. To read more about who can donate visit the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project website.

On Newt’s World this week, I’m joined by Dr. Arturo Casadevall, who is both a medical doctor and a doctor of philosophy and is chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has been a leading national voice on developing a convalescent plasma therapy to treat COVID-19.

With emerging new treatments like this, we will defeat this virus. I look forward to sharing more with you about these interventions and treatments in the future.