Plasma Shot Could Prevent Coronavirus, but Federal Officials Won't Act

Scientists have reportedly developed a method that could use blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors to inoculate others against the pandemic, but they are being prevented from distributing the treatment widely. The Los Angeles Times reported on the discovery on Friday, and on the red tape keeping it out of hospitals and doctors' offices. So far, federal officials are not giving the idea the time of day, while drug manufacturers are refusing to develop it.

Blood plasma from survivors has reportedly been used to prevent other diseases around the world, and researchers believe they have now found a way to do the same with COVID-19. This idea was spearheaded by two scientists: an HIV gene therapy expert and a shingles researcher. It would be delivered through an intramuscular injection in the upper arm, providing a shot of COVID-19 antibodies to those in need. It has picked up widespread support from blood and immunology specialists, but so far, it has been prevented from taking the next steps.

Even public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have turned down the proposal. Fauci admitted that this "is a very attractive concept," but said that there are other steps to go through first — even in today's rushed drug production climate. He pointed out that some coronavirus patients in hospitals are getting shots of COVID-19 antibodies now, and he wants to wait for more data from those programs before moving on to a preventative shot.

"Once you show the efficacy, then the obvious next step is to convert it into an intramuscular [shot]," Fauci said.

Some scientists disagree, arguing that this delay is unnecessary — especially now, with so many lives hanging in the balance. Proponents say that the intramuscular antibody should be put into clinical trials now. The shots can be scaled up easily to serve a considerable portion of the population and could provide a means for protecting essential workers until a vaccine is developed.

"Beyond being a lost opportunity, this is a real head-scratcher. It seems obvious," said Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Michael Joyner.

The proposal is not radical or new. It is referred to as "convalescent plasma," and has been widely used for decades to protect nurses and doctors from high-risk illnesses such as hepatitis A when they know they will be exposed. It is done by concentrating antibody-rich blood plasma in a drug called immune globulin, or IG. It is reportedly a conventional treatment for tetanus, varicella and rabies.

While researchers are being prevented from scaling up IG treatments for COVID-19, about 28,000 patients have reportedly been given the experimental drug so far. Preliminary data from those trials show that IG for COVID-19 is likely safe. While there are many nuanced scientific debates to have about the treatment, one anonymous infectious disease expert suggested at a simple reason for pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists to turn down the proposal: money.

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"They charge a fortune off of intravenous drugs in the hospital. They don't want to devote the manufacturing plant to something that won't make oodles of money," they said.

Still, it is clear that the idea of an IG treatment for COVID-19 has reached as far as Fauci on the White House coronavirus task force, and is being given serious consideration — if not as quickly as some might hope. Researchers will need to show more data to political leaders and drug manufacturers soon to get this treatment into circulation.