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FDA authorizes COVID-19 plasma treatment, but more testing needed

Coronavirus samples being tested in a lab. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The FDA has given an emergency use authorization to plasma treatment for coronavirus. How effective is the treatment?

Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio to discuss.

“There’s actually been over 70,000 people in the United States who have been treated with convalescent plasma. So what is convalescent plasma? The notion of it is actually really quite scientifically sound. You take somebody who’s already been sick, the antibodies were built up in their body to fight off the coronavirus infection, and it’s sort of like they’ve been vaccinated,” he said.

“So it’s like doing a blood donation, basically, except that you’re just taking the plasma fraction — you’re not taking the blood cell fraction — and then you’re transfusing it into somebody who’s sick. The idea is is that those antibodies from that recovered patient’s plasma will then be able to help treat somebody who is currently and actively sick.”

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Dr. Cohen says one of the issues with the treatment, and his issue with many of the treatments being promoted, is that because of the pandemic’s impact on society we appear to be rushing towards a cure without doing the proper science.

“The problem with it is, they are just throwing around numbers, saying that 35% of patients who get it get better. So 35 out of 100 people have recovered. There’s no randomized, controlled double-blind study. So would those 35 people have gotten better no matter what? Or did the plasma they got actually helps to make them better,” he said.

“I can tell you this for my own personal experience that I have had young healthy patients who have not survived COVID-19 despite getting all the treatments — remdesivir, dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine, and convalescent plasma — and I’ve seen young people in their twenties, people who don’t even believe that the disease is real or a threat not survive getting all those treatments … What’s happened is because of the economic impact, the social impact, and the medical impact of all of it is that we’re all desperate for a cure, and things are being just thrown out right and left without any real testing in place.”

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While Dr. Cohen believes there’s a lot of good logic behind convalescent plasma treatment, there is much complexity around the nature of antibody treatment.

“This has a lot more good logic associated with why this would work scientifically. Unfortunately, we don’t know if it does, because not everybody who gets it is getting better. The other problem with it is everybody has different levels of antibodies, and so we don’t know whether you require a certain level of antibodies in the convalescent plasma for the patient receiving it to get better. There are studies that are showing that people get sick, they build up antibodies. But then as time goes on, their antibody levels start to fall off, and some people have gotten second infections,” he said.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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