Pandemic Survivors May Be Key To First COVID-19 Treatment

6:55 minutes

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

a bag of transfusion blood
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All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach. 

Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Just to note, we won’t be taking calls this hour. This is a pre-recorded hour due to the need for physical distancing. But first, during the COVID-19 pandemic we’re all going through, all sorts of treatments have been proposed, some of them more promising than others. One of those experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from people who have recovered from the disease, hoping that the antibodies from these recovered patients could help those currently who are sick.

Here to fill us in on that story is Sarah Zhang. She’s a staff writer at The Atlantic, based out of Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. Nice to have you back.

SARAH ZHANG: Hi. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now, the idea of using blood plasma from survivors to treat patients, this is not a new idea, is it? And how does this work?

SARAH ZHANG: It’s actually a really old idea. It comes from the late 19th century from before we had antibiotics or really vaccines or antivirals. And that’s basically the situation we are in right now with coronavirus. So the idea is that it’s pretty hard to make a drug or a vaccine from scratch, but we have all these people walking around whose immune systems have figured out how to make antibodies from these proteins that can really specifically target and neutralize the coronavirus. So if we could just harness this ability of all these survivors and collect their blood plasma– plasma is the kind of yellow liquid that our red blood cells are bathed in. If we could just collect that, maybe that could help people who are still sick.

IRA FLATOW: I understand that the synagogue in Westchester, the congregants who were sick and have recovered are now donating their blood for just such a reason.

SARAH ZHANG: Exactly. So after Mount Sinai Hospital in New York put out a call for donors, they were actually really overwhelmed with, I think, over 1,000 people who wanted to donate. And that’s been really wonderful to see.

One of the kind of hard parts early on and sort of the irony is that the bigger the pandemic, the longer it goes on, the easier it will be to find donors. It’s just that not that many people are suitable donors at this point because you need to have gotten the virus, but also have recovered. It was really hard to get tested about three or four weeks ago when these donors would have first gotten sick. So right now it’s sort of sifting through people who want to donate to actually finding people who are the right donors.

IRA FLATOW: What’s actually in the plasma that they’re looking for?

SARAH ZHANG: Your body makes antibodies that can neutralize and stop a virus or bacteria from being able to attack your cells. They do this, but we don’t really know. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that antibodies are may be helpful early on in an infection. So maybe, for example, when you just got the virus that causes COVID-19, maybe these antibodies can kind of jumpstart your immune system. So it prevents the virus from going from your nose and your throat to your lungs where it is really dangerous. So the idea is that it’s a way to help your immune system to respond quickly when you are able to do so yourself.

IRA FLATOW: Now your next story is sort of along the same lines. And this is about the next big test, is antibody testing. What is that? Why is that important?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah. So as we were saying, antibodies are these proteins in the blood that are your immune system’s reaction to the virus. So most of the tests we’re talking about right now, what they look for is the presence of genetic material from the virus and kind of like a nasal swab. These blood tests, they’re important for three reasons. The first is, as we were talking about, they could help identify people who would be good plasma donors to help patients who are still sick.

The second is that we’ve been hearing a lot about the fact that some people might get COVID-19, but they don’t feel sick at all. They don’t have any symptoms at all. These asymptomatic cases, we really want to have an understanding of how many people are actually getting this. Because right now if you’re not getting sick, you’re not getting a test. These antibody tests can give us a better handle on how many people are actually getting sick and how it’s really affecting people.

And there’s a third reason that antibody testing might be useful, which is that we are obviously living through this kind of incredible period of social distancing and lockdown. And the idea is that if we could identify people who are immune to the disease, maybe they can go back to their normal lives. Maybe they can go back to their jobs. If they’re health care workers, they don’t have to worry about getting infected again. So antibody testing can help us get back to a new normal.

IRA FLATOW: So apart from all the testing, once someone comes down with the virus, and they survive, and they’re healthy, and they’re out in the community again, do we know how long their immunity lasts?

SARAH ZHANG: Oh, that is the question that everyone wants to answer. So based on viruses that are closely related to this coronavirus– these are viruses that cause common colds– we think the immunity should last several months, but we really don’t know. And obviously the reason we don’t know is that this particular virus has only been infecting humans for a few months. So we just really have to wait and see.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Asia got control of their outbreaks, but now they’re seeing a second wave of infections. Are they coming from people who are coming back into the country?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. And this is really concerning and maybe even a preview of what we’re likely to see over the next months and weeks. So these places in Asia such as Singapore, and Hong Kong, and in South Korea, they’re really seen as rays of hope. These are places that really harnessed fires under control early on.

And now we’re having travelers, in many cases, people returning home to these countries. And they’re unfortunately sometimes bringing coronavirus with them. And I think this is probably what’s going to happen across the world over the next several months, which is that it’s really, really difficult for every single country all over the world to get coronavirus under control at the exact same time.

So even, for example, if the US, we are able to flatten the curve, what might happen is that there’s going to be these constant sparks of people coming back, because it’s really hard to ban all travel, period. And what’s going to be really necessary is to keep up that really hard work of testing everybody, of tracing contacts of all the travelers, making sure all the travelers actually isolate. And that’s going to be just really hard, sustained work over a pretty long period of time until we have a treatment or a vaccine.

IRA FLATOW: So are you seeing that countries are trying to stave this off using novel methods of identifying these people?

SARAH ZHANG: Well, what they’re really doing is trying to restrict travel, which unfortunately might also be a preview of what’s to come. So in Hong Kong, for example, they’re also giving electronic bracelets to everyone who comes home. And these bracelets will actually track exactly where you’ve been. And if you are seen outside with a bracelet, people are actually also just kind of snitching on you. So there’s also a lot of social pressure on top of the literal physical surveillance that’s happening for travelers right now.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Sarah, as always, for being so informative for us.

SARAH ZHANG: Thank you, and stay safe.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you too. Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic, based out of Washington DC.

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