RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — By now you’ve heard the pleas for plasma in the fight against Covid-19. But is it really a treatment for the virus? It’s still being debated as trials are still underway. However, a Henrico man says he wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for a someone’s plasma donation.
Convalescent plasma therapy is nothing new. It’s been used to treat patients with the Spanish flu, SARS and MERS. Still, it wasn’t clear to doctors if it worked for the Coronavirus.
Yet, Sandston resident Billy Brooks is a believer. Brooks is an essential worker. He was working as a traveling nurse, caring for Covid-19 patients at Mary Washington Hospital when he caught the virus in late March.
“At first I felt ok, with just a fever and then I started getting headaches,” he said. More symptoms developed. Brooks said, “Lost my smell and my taste for food.” So he got a test and it confirmed he had Coronavirus.
He was already quarantining. On his 12th day into quarantine, he took a turn for the worse.
“I couldn’t breathe,” said Brooks.
Brooks was rushed to VCU Medical Center and put in the intensive care unit. He said, “I knew I was short of breath and the headaches were very intense, I just need help. I asked the the doctor if he would intubate to help me out and he said yes.”
It looked like he wasn’t going to make it. Brooks was running dangerously high fevers. “106, 107 range,” he told us.
That’s when VCU doctors made a life-saving decision in giving him convalescent plasma therapy.
It’s a treatment that uses the antibodies of someone who had the infection and developed an immune response. VCU Doctor and Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Jeffrey Donowitz says it is given to the patient through a one time I-V infusion. “Antibodies are these little flags that our bodies make and they stick to invaders- viruses, bacteria. And the cool thing about them is they are specific to that virus,” explained Donowitz.
Brooks said it worked. “They gave me the plasma and guess what? My fever broke,” he told 8News.
Dr. Donowitz agrees. “It does work,” he said. The doctor admits trials and studies on using convalescent plasma are still underway and hard core evidence to back up his belief is still being reviewed Yet, from the work at VCU, he says doctors there know there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that it has a benefit. “We know it works best if you give it early in the course of the disease. It is an extremely safe product compared to some other drugs and things that are being tried for COVID.”
There’s no question in Brooks mind. “Oh I definitely believe in it. It saved my life.”
He is also extremely grateful for the care he got from the staff at VCU Medical Center. “I thank them very very much for saving my life,” he said. Brooks is feeling well and is back at work. He’s not working with Covid patients right now. He’s giving his body some time but he does plan to go back to it.
Brooks having recovered now has antibodies himself and he’s already donated his plasma hoping to save someone else’s life. He told us, “It’s a godsend you know, saving somebody’s life. It really helped me.”
Doctor Donowitz stresses donation is the key to this therapy. If you have recovered from Covid-19 and would like to donate your plasma, the American Red Cross can help. You can learn more here. You can also find more information about convalescent plasma therapy and donation here.
What are the experts saying?
A trial studying the use of convalescent plasma on 464 subjects in India did not find that the plasma was able to prevent the progression of the disease or reduce mortality. The study found that 19% of patients receiving plasma and supportive care progressed to severe disease or died while 18% of patients only on supportive care did.
The study took place after the United States gave emergency authorization to use convalescent plasma as a treatment. The study acknowledges that other research shows the plasma can reduce viral load, hospitalization time and death rates, theirs did not.
Patients in India were told whether or not they were receiving the convalescent plasma but the National Institute of Health studies currently underway utilize a placebo. Patients will not know whether or not they are receiving the plasma or not. Both studies, the Convalescent Plasma to Limit COVID-19 Complications in Hospitalized Patients and the Passive Immunity Trial of Our Nation for COVID-19 are still recruiting patients.
Another looked into what types of donors would have plasma that most effectively treats the virus. John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health found that certain donors may lead to a stronger antibody response. They tested blood from 126 former COVID-19 patients and found the antibody response varied a lot from case to case. The strongest responses were found in people who had to be hospitalized, older people and men.