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Researchers Hunt For COVID Antibodies In Plasma Of Recovered Patients

Marshall Ritzell
Tiffany Pinckney poses for a portrait in the Harlem neighborhood of New York on April 1, 2020. Pinckney became one of the nation’s first donors of "convalescent plasma." ";

Plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients may provide a desperately needed treatment for people currently fighting the disease.

The national research initiative, which received federal approval earlier this month, includes doctors from both Allegheny Health Network and UPMC. The health systems are now contacting recovered COVID-19 patients to see if they will donate plasma.

To participate, a person must have first tested positive for coronavirus. A second test with a negative result is also required. So far, no one in Pittsburgh has donated his or her plasma. Lawrenceville resident Jason Moreorles said he would like to contribute to the research and that he recently got tested, since he's been free of COVID symptoms for more than two weeks.

“Unfortunately, it came back positive. I apparently, have a large ‘viral load’ and am still infected,” he said. "I plan on getting tested again in two weeks.”

Credit UPMC
Dr. John McDyer is part of a national group that's researching an experimental plasma treatment for COVID-19.

One theory as to why some people become extremely ill with COVID-19 is that they have particularly poor immune responses to the virus. So, by giving these patients the plasma of someone who has recovered from the disease, they receive anti-bodies that have already defeated the novel coronavirus.

“That idea is that that source of anti-body will circulate to the right sites, such as the lung, where the virus’s spread can be blocked,” said UPMC’s Dr. John McDyer.

McDyer said it’s too soon to know if the treatment will work, though this type of medical intervention has been successful in the past.

“It dates back over 100 years to the measles outbreak in the late 19th century, and even the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918," he said. “Then there was some hint that it was successful in the first SARS outbreak.”

The full name of the novel coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2. As the name implies, it's related to the SARS virus that killed more than 8,000 between 2002 and 2003.

McDyer said that eventually the goal is for researchers identify certain donors that have particularly robust antibodies. The plasma of those individuals can be mixed to make a composite, or hyper-immune globulin, which might be effective in treating COVID-19 infections.

People who think they may be eligible to donate plasma should email either UPMC of Allegheny Health Network.

WESA receives funding from UPMC and Allegheny Health Network.