A possible treatment: Researchers looking for COVID-19 survivors to donate plasma

Researchers are racing to find ways to stop the virus from spreading and to cure it. The University of Washington is leading the way on many of these efforts.

Now a team with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine is working with Bloodwork’s Northwest to recruit COVID-19 patients who’ve recovered to see if the antibodies in survivors’ blood could be a key to fighting the disease.

They’re looking for people with a lab-confirmed case and have been symptom-free for 28 days. Participants will then be screened to see if they have the right kind of antibodies researchers are looking for.

The idea is survivors’ blood will contain antibodies that can attack the virus, and a transfusion could help do the same in the body of a patient fighting to survive.

“The Chinese have been doing this and they’ve had several reports out of what looks like success. Everybody is cautiously optimistic,” said Dr. Terry Gernsheimer, a hematologist with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.

The plan is to start testing out treatment for the sickest patients in the Seattle area immediately.

“As soon as we get those plasma collected, we have every intent of turning around and start treating patients in the community,” Gernsheimer said. “My colleagues here have seen a lot of cases. I've lost a patient myself,” she said.

A website landing page is still being developed – Gernsheimer said the study will be officially announced on Wednesday. But interested participants can email covidplasma@uw.edu or leave a message at 206-520-4212.

You can also contact your local Bloodworks Northwest branch to see if you qualify.

Researchers have teamed up with Bloodworks Northwest and the National Institute of Health (NIH) to make it all happen.

“We’ve been working on it like crazy for the last couple of weeks, I just got a brand new copy of the protocol today,” said Dr. Becky Haley, the medical director of Bloodworks Northwest.

The study is part of a nationwide effort to get survivors to donate plasma. People in New York have already started donating.

"My body figured out to how to fight it off. So let’s use that superpower that my body created and transfer it to somebody whose immune system didn’t kick in the same way,” said Diana Berrent, a COVID-19 survivor in New York City.

Here in the Seattle area, plasma donations from survivors have been collected in a small way for other research projects on immune response – for instance, one at UW Medicine. But now, collection is about to expand dramatically with the involvement of Bloodworks Northwest.

“We are thrilled to have an opportunity to try and have some mitigation of this awful disease that's ripping through our country,” Haley said.

Researchers are also hoping it will lead to other answers.

“Find out why certain people are able to survive this,” Gernsheimer said.

She said in four to six months, they're hoping to have the ability to develop a concentrated serum out of the antibodies that could help prevent people at the front lines -- like health care workers -- from getting sick.

Gernsheimer actually says ideally -- the work they’re racing to complete won’t be needed for long.

“Hopefully this is going to be replace by a vaccine and eventually this won’t be something we’ll have to use very much at all,” she said.