Study shows convalescent plasma works for immune-compromised Covid-19 patients, but it can be hard to find
ISLAMABAD: “Our concern is that many patients who need [convalescent plasma] are not getting it,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the new study. “This is really important because these people can be treated, and they could have better outcomes with this material if we can just get the word out.”
He said it’s to everyone’s advantage to treat immune-compromised patients quickly.
Immune-compromised people sometimes have “smoldering Covid” for months because they lack the antibodies to fight it off, which gives the virus plenty of opportunities to mutate in the person’s body.
“These immune-compromised patients are essentially variant factories,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and another study co-author. “And you do not want a bunch of people running around out there making weird variants.”
There are about 7 million immune-compromised people in the US, and treating them if they contract Covid-19 has proved challenging.
Many of them can’t take the antiviral drug Paxlovid because it interferes with other medicines they take.
Monoclonal antibodies, once popular for prevention and treatment for this group, aren’t used anymore because coronavirus variants have changed over time. One of the advantages of convalescent plasma is that as long as it’s been donated recently, there’s a high likelihood it will have antibodies to currently circulating variants, according to advocates for the treatment.
But the National Institutes of Health’s Covid-19 treatment guidelines say there’s not enough evidence to recommend either for or against the use of convalescent plasma in people with compromised immune systems.
Three times last year – in May, August and December – Casadevall, Joyner and dozens of other doctors from Harvard, Stanford, Mayo, Columbia and other academic medical centers wrote emails to scientists at the National Institutes of Health, sending them research materials and urging them to revise the guidelines. They say they have not received a response.
Joyner said he’s “frustrated” with the NIH’s “bureaucratic rope-a-dope,” calling the agency’s guidelines a “wet blanket” that discourages doctors from trying convalescent plasma on these people.
Some patient advocates say they’re angry.
“This lack of response to the researchers is infuriating,” said Janet Handal, co-founder of the Transplant Recipient and Immunocompromised Patient Advocacy Group.
Several large randomized clinical trials on the general population, including one in India and one in the UK, have found that convalescent plasma did not reduce Covid-19 deaths or prevent severe illness, and the treatment is no longer authorized in the US for people who have healthy immune systems.
The nine studies analyzed in the new report are much smaller and looked only at immune-compromised patients.
Dr. Peter Horby, a professor at the University of Oxford and the co-principal investigator of the large UK study, said that a large randomized clinical trial should be done on immune-compromised patients before clinical practice guidelines for this group are changed.
He said that support for convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19 has been based on “an emotional feeling that something had to be done.”
“We’ve seen time and again that people’s beliefs and emotions about what works can be wildly wrong, and so the best thing to do is to evaluate these things properly in trials,” he said.
Winding history of convalescent plasma for Covid-19
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was great enthusiasm for convalescent plasma as Covid-19 survivors sought to save lives, donating antibodies against the virus to people who were sometimes at death’s door.
In August 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the treatment, but some questioned whether it was politically motivated and whether the data really showed that it worked.