The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) is joining researchers across the country to test whether transfusions of plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients (also called convalescent plasma) can prevent infection in healthy volunteers or speed recovery in people with mild COVID-19 infections.
The trials, which are led nationally by Johns Hopkins University and locally by URMC Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Research Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., will aim to enroll 28 local volunteers: 9 healthy volunteers who are at high risk of infection – like frontline healthcare workers – and 19 people with mild COVID-19 infections. Half of the volunteers will receive infusions of convalescent plasma (containing antibodies that flag the COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus for destruction by the immune system) and the other half will receive an infusion of placebo plasma.
The hope is that the antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus will prevent the healthy volunteers from getting infected and will boost immune responses in volunteers with mild disease – keeping them out of the ICU and helping them recover faster.
“While a COVID-19 vaccine may be many months away, we have high hopes that convalescent plasma treatment could be found to protect people from infection sooner,” said Zand. “But careful studies like ours are an essential first step.”
Convalescent plasma therapy has been used to treat a litany of infections since the late 1800’s when it first came on the scene. Recent uncontrolled clinical trials suggested a benefit in treating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), making this therapy a reasonable candidate for treating COVID-19, which shares many similarities with SARS and MERS.
However, there are also some risks of treating people with convalescent plasma, which will be closely monitored during this study. While blood transfusions are safer now than ever, they can still cause side effects, ranging from fevers, rashes, hives, or headaches to severe allergic reactions or lung injury, which are less common.
For the studies, URMC will rely on convalescent plasma supplied by the American Red Cross, which is currently facing an emergency shortage due to the national coronavirus surge. Over the past month, the Red Cross has seen hospital demand for convalescent plasma more than double as coronavirus cases have sharply increased in many U.S. states.
Local community members who have received a verified COVID-19 diagnosis and fully recovered are urged to sign up to give convalescent plasma by completing the Donor Information Form on the American Red Cross website. The only source of convalescent plasma is COVID-19 survivors, giving them a unique ability to help, and each convalescent plasma donation can potentially help treat up to three patients.
URMC will be one of 30 sites participating in these studies through the Trial Innovation Network, a collaborative national network devoted to conducting high quality clinical trials. The network is part of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program, the largest single program at the National Institutes of Health that is devoted to getting medical and population health interventions to patients and populations faster.
Individuals who are healthy, but at high risk for contracting COVID-19, and those who have been recently diagnosed with COVID-19 can learn more about participating in these trials by calling (585) 273-1926 or emailing Susanne_Heininger@URMC.Rochester.edu.
If you have recently recovered from COVID-19, you can sign up to donate convalescent plasma at the American Red Cross.
Learn more about other COVID-19 studies at URMC that are seeking volunteers by visiting COVIDstudies.urmc.edu.