The South Texas Blood and Tissue Center will begin collecting plasma from people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus and distributing the plasma for testing to aid in nationwide treatment development efforts.  

While there is no current proven treatment for coronavirus, plasma from people who have recovered contains disease-fighting antibodies produced in response to an illness. Those antibodies may provide passive immunity to certain patients with severe forms of COVID-19, said Elizabeth Waltman, chief operating officer of the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center.  

“Because there are hundreds of thousands throughout the United States that would benefit from this plasma, there is something quite remarkable in being able to participate in this study,” Waltman told the Rivard Report.

The blood bank is one of a handful of centers in the country with the ability to test the collected plasma to determine the concentration of antibodies. The testing will be done by QualTex Laboratories, which like the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center is a subsidiary of San Antonio-based BioBridge Global.

Austin-based XBiotech, a bioscience company dedicated to antibody research, will aid in development of a clinical test to identify natural antibodies against the virus present in human blood.

The effectiveness of treating patients with convalescent plasma is unknown, but the Food and Drug Administration approved it as an investigational treatment on March 24, giving researchers the option to request emergency authorization to test convalescent plasma as a treatment.

The method of harvesting antibodies from the blood of previously infected patients dates back more than a century, but has not been used widely in the United States in decades.

Treating patients with convalescent plasma was studied during the swine flu outbreak, the SARS outbreak, and the 2012 MERS epidemic, according to the FDA.

“It is therefore important to determine through clinical trials, before routinely administering convalescent plasma to patients with COVID-19, that it is safe and effective to do so,” FDA officials said.

On Friday, the FDA announced that the Mayo Clinic, an academic medical center based in Rochester, Minnesota, will serve as the lead institution in a national initiative to deliver convalescent plasma therapy. All local hospitals wanting to treat patients with convalescent plasma will request it through the Mayo Clinic, Waltman said.

Waltman said the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center has participated in similar studies collecting convalescent plasma, including one aimed at treating people infected with the ebola virus, but none of them had the potential to be as large as this one because of the number of coronavirus patients worldwide.

The South Texas Blood and Tissue Center hopes to begin collecting from eligible donors this week.

“We expect that many donors who have experienced COVID-19 will want to do their part to help patients suffering from a severe form of the illness,” Waltman said. “We ask that donors remain patient as we work to put the program into place.”

Eligible donors include anyone with a positive coronavirus diagnosis who are currently free of symptoms. Convalescent plasma can only be donated by someone who is otherwise eligible to donate blood, including donors age 17 or older who weigh more than 110 pounds, or 16-year-olds with parental consent who weigh at least 120 pounds.

Those recovered from coronavirus will donate plasma in an area kept separate from all other blood and plasma donations, Waltman said.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.