NEW YORK — When COVID-19 launched its deadly assault on the tri state-area in March of last year, people were desperate for some kind of treatment.
Now, we have vaccines but back then, we didn’t have much more than prayers and drugs that we hoped might do something.
That’s when doctors started using convalescent plasma therapy. Blood plasma from people who recovered from COVID-19 and who had a high level of antibodies were transfused into people with the virus.
An estimated 70,000 patients in America received convalescent plasma. Many even before the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for it last August. The technique was considered safe since it had been used to fight other diseases, so there were high hopes.
Thousands of COVID survivors came forward to donate their plasma antibodies.
But a year later, a doctor who used the treatment mostly on patients already in intensive care has a simple but harsh assessment of its efficacy.
“A complete bust,” said Dr. Ashok Balasubpramanyam of the Baylor College of Medicine.
He believes that’s true for the use of convalescent plasma on hospitalized patients who are already very sick.
“Once you’re really quite sick, the addition of convalescent plasma doesn’t do much,” he told PIX11 News. “It’s not really going to help them get much better.”
Dr. Nicole Bouvier, who oversaw the convalescent plasma program at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, agrees. Mount Sinai was not doing a clinical trial so the conclusions are based on observation of the results from an estimated 600-700 patients who received the treatment there.
“When given early it appears to help prevent severe disease,” she told PIX11 News. “But once severe diseases are already set in it doesn’t help after that.”
A study from Argentina supports the position that convalescent plasma may be useful for new patients who are not showing significant symptoms. Johns Hopkins is overseeing a major clinical trial on the treatment with some results expected late this summer.
In February, the Food and Drug Administration limited the emergency use to plasma with very high concentrations of COVID antibodies and only for patients early in the disease process or who can’t make their own antibodies.
Dr. Bouvier has a similar view.
“I think there may be a role for convalescent plasma in patients who either have an immune deficiency such that they can’t produce their own antibodies or using it in patients before they end up in the hospital as sort of a preventative measure to prevent them from getting sicker,” she said.
A few days ago, the Centers for Disease Control issued updated recommendations for COVID-19 plasma therapy.
It now recommends not using it even with high antibody concentration “in hospitalized patients… except in clinical trials.”
“That’s part of medicine,” Dr. Bouvier told us. “Trying things that seem like they’re going to work and then studying them in a rigorous fashion and figuring it out, you know, did it help or not.”