Andrew Sherman, a Covid-19 survivor, is finally starting to feel better. One of the first things he did during his recovery: volunteer to donate blood plasma to help seriously ill patients fight the disease.
Mr. Sherman, age 52, spent three days on oxygen in a New York City hospital in mid-March before being released to complete his recovery at home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Jodi Sheeler, and their two children: Maisy, 8, and Milo, 11.
“I feel obligated to help now that I am on the other side of it,” Mr. Sherman said.
Plasma’s Path How recovered coronavirus patients can help others with Covid-19.
Patients who recover from Covid-19 have antibodies that can recognize and help neutralize the virus.
Recovered patients donate blood plasma, which contains antibodies. The plasma is transfused into another patient suffering from coronavirus infection.
The antibodies from the first patient target the virus, helping to clear it from the second patient’s system.
So do many others. The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where Mr. Sherman volunteered to donate plasma, is one of 34 institutions around the country participating in the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, which is seeking blood-plasma donations from recovered patients who have a confirmed Covid-positive test and are at least 21 days out from the onset of symptoms.
Researchers want recovered patients to donate plasma, the colorless fluid in blood containing antibodies produced to attack the virus, because it can be given to people who are seriously ill to help fight the disease.
“The biggest problem is not the lack of donors,” said Arturo Casadevall, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, and one of the organizers of the national project. “It is the logistics of figuring out how people who want to participate can actually donate.”
Mount Sinai said it received more than 1,000 inquiries the first day after the call went out for plasma donations. At the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., a dedicated email address for volunteers is curated every day to find not only who qualifies but also whether they live locally and can drive to the clinic.
“The public response has been extremely high, but many of the emails are from people who are not good candidates for donation right now,” said Nicole Bouvier, associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who is coordinating the hospital effort with donors. “Some are from people who just want to be tested, but we don’t have the lab capacity to screen anyone who isn’t likely to be a good plasma donor.”
Plasma donors undergo a procedure similar to blood donation. The blood is filtered in a machine that extracts the plasma; red and white blood cells are returned to the donor. Scientists said preliminary estimates indicate a plasma donation from one person can likely treat two people. Eventually, scientists anticipate there could be a synthetic version of the antibody that specifically targets SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Mount Sinai said three patients had received convalescent plasma from donors.
Houston Methodist Hospital has transfused two Covid-19 patients with convalescent serum in recent days, according to James Musser, chairman of the department of pathology and genomic medicine there. Scientists believe the antibodies neutralize the virus. They are also still studying how much of the antibodies is sufficient and how long any protection might last.
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Blood-plasma donors were identified by doctors who examined the medical charts of about 300 people who tested positive for Covid-19 at the hospital system. Dr. Musser said they plan a wider call for volunteers in coming days.
Prospective donors must be symptom-free, have a documented positive Covid test and take another Covid test to ensure there is no detectable virus. Their blood is tested for the presence of antibodies. The blood is also screened to make sure there are no other viruses, such as HIV or hepatitis. To donate plasma, they also have to meet standard blood-donor requirements, which can include age, health status and recent travel history.
Liise-anne Pirofski, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, N.Y., which is participating in the project, said researchers aren’t sure how long antibodies remain present in recovered patients’ plasma. Ideally, researchers want to identify people with very high levels of antibodies to be donors. They believe the highest levels occur about three to four weeks after symptom onset. “For some infections, antibodies are present for a very long time. For this particular virus, we don’t know how long they are there,” she said.
Chaim Lebovits, who is working with nearly 50 rabbis in the New York area to identify recovered patients, was at a synagogue on Tuesday in New Rochelle, N.Y., site of an early outbreak, watching as people arrived to be tested as potential donors. He said hundreds of people had volunteered, responding to emails sent from rabbis and requests on community What’sApp groups. Montefiore Medical Center sent a mobile medical unit to the synagogue to collect blood for testing for antibodies and give Covid tests to make sure donors are negative.
If they are eligible to donate, the next challenge will be figuring out how to get volunteers to donation centers. “You have to be able to physically get to the place to donate,” said Mr. Lebovits.
Michael Joyner, a professor at the Mayo Clinic and another project organizer, said the consortium has nightly calls to try to smooth out logistics. “If this were a normal time, it would be like falling off a log, but it is not a normal time,” Dr. Joyner said.
For Mr. Sherman, normal times stopped on Monday, March 9. He did his usual morning routine. He dropped the children off at school and took a Pilates class. He rode home on the subway. That afternoon, he felt dizzy and had a fever. He lay down and had trouble getting up.
By Saturday, March 14, his situation had deteriorated to where he was in bed, “breathing carefully” and drinking water—“the only thing that doesn’t taste like rotten fruit,” he later wrote in
posts. His doctor told him to go to the local walk-in clinic, where he was able to get a Covid test. The clinic later called him and said the test was botched and he had to retake it.
He went back to urgent care on Monday, March 16, and got a chest X-ray, which showed he had pneumonia; Mr. Sherman took another Covid test and learned the next day that it was positive. But it wasn’t until three days later, when he had trouble breathing and couldn’t respond to his wife’s questions, that the doctor urged him to go to a hospital emergency room. Mr. Sherman was hospitalized later that day and started receiving oxygen and IV drips of medications. After three days, his oxygen levels were holding steady enough that he was discharged and told to stay at home for another seven to 10 days.
Back at home, Mr. Sherman felt grateful but took note of the physical toll. He lost 16 pounds during the ordeal. “I still feel sore when I take a deep breath,” he said.
Recently, he heard back from Mount Sinai about becoming a plasma donor. He filled out the questionnaire for potential donors, and is waiting for further direction. “I am more than willing to do anything,” he said.
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Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at [email protected]
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