NBC News reported Thursday that researchers delayed studying the effects of coronavirus patients receiving convalescent plasma in favor of hydroxychloroquine, the drug repeatedly promoted by President Trump that’s been found to have little benefit, but scientists are switching gears and ramping up their efforts to understand plasma.
At Vanderbilt University, NBC News reported, studies of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, along with the antiviral remdesivir were prioritized over convalescent plasma.
Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood stripped of white and red blood cells that, in recovered Covid-19 patients, contains antibodies that could help patients still fighting the virus, according to the New York Times.
An expanded-access program for plasma has been led by the Mayo Clinic with financial support from the Trump administration, with tens of thousands of coronavirus patients receiving plasma, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Doctors, however, can’t say whether plasma helps coronavirus patients recover, because the Mayo program isn’t the gold standard of scientific research: a randomized, controlled trial, where some patients are given a placebo, giving doctors the chance to see how well the infusions actually work, NBC News says.
Preliminary data from one study reviewed by the WSJ showed a reduced mortality rate for patients receiving a plasma infusion at three or four days after diagnosis, but the study has not been published in a journal or peer-reviewed.
Further complicating the study of plasma is that many doctors were unwilling to let patients possibly receive a placebo when they could get an infusion from the Mayo Clinic program, and declines of the outbreak in cities like New York also limited patient enrollment for controlled trials, according to the Times.
“You always have that hindsight and say, oh man, we should have put our efforts into something else,” Vanderbilt University medical professor Dr. Todd Rice told NBC News about the prioritization of hydroxychloroquine over plasma.
53,000. That’s how many coronavirus patients have received plasma infusions through the Mayo program, the WSJ reported.
Trump pushed hydroxychloroquine numerous times in March and April, calling it a “miracle” drug, and revealed in May he was taking it prophylactically despite a National Institutes of Health warning against it. Trump’s mentions of the drug declined in June, but emerged again last week when he shared a misleading video on Twitter promoting it. Adm. Brett Giroir, Trump’s coronavirus testing czar, said Sunday that the administration needs to move on from hydroxychloroquine after five controlled studies showed little benefit. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy Infectious Disease, told reporters Tuesday that a randomized, controlled trial for convalescent plasma needs to be done to determine its benefits—and, had it been prioritized, “we would’ve had the answer to that right now.”
What to watch for
Johns Hopkins University is enrolling 1,000 volunteers for a controlled trial of plasma in coronavirus patients, NBC News reported. Just 50 have signed up so far, but researchers hope to have their first results by mid-October.
Some famous plasma donors have surfaced during the pandemic. Tom Hanks—one of the first A-list celebrities to have contracted coronavirus—has donated plasma at least twice, according to his Instagram. Actor Bryan Cranston revealed in a video on the social media platform Friday that he had Covid-19, and showed himself donating plasma. Bravo television host Andy Cohen also had coronavirus. But, because he’s gay, Cohen said he’s not allowed to donate per FDA guidlines, a policy he called “discriminatory.”
Convalescent Plasma Reduced Death Rate Among Covid-19 Patients, Study Data Signals (Wall Street Journal)