Fairbanks hospital joins national study on convalescent plasma from COVID patients

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in Fairbanks, Alaska (Wikimedia commons photo)

This month the first units of donated “convalescent plasma” went to a COVID-19 patient at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. The plasma is a possible treatment for the disease, and the hospital, along with the Blood Bank of Alaska, is part of a nationwide study to see how well it works.

This story is for the 350-ish Alaskans who have recovered from COVID-19 — the folks among them who have had laboratory tests to confirm they had it and are healthy enough now to donate blood plasma.

“We think if someone’s had COVID, and they’ve recovered, there may be antibodies in there that may help someone else who is acutely ill,” said Dr. Danny Robinette, the Chief Medical Officer of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

Read the latest news about coronavirus in Alaska.

He says people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies — those infection-fighting proteins — in their blood. Plasma, the liquid portion of the blood, from people who’ve recovered is called convalescent plasma.

Robert Scanlon, the Chief Executive Officer of Blood Bank of Alaska says the plasma is infused from blood donated by Alaskans who have recovered from the coronavirus disease.

“We’ve had a dozen successful collections,” he said.

There is no cure for COVID-19, and doctors are still looking at all manners of treatment. Medical centers and blood banks in Alaska are joining a nationwide study through the Mayo Clinic to find out if this might work – if convalescent plasma given to COVID-19 patients boosts their ability to fight the virus.

Normally, a medical center would apply to perform a clinical trial and get set up for human testing with oversight called an Institutional Review Board, or IRB. But, Robinette says, the Food and Drug Administration has thrown the net wide in what’s called Expanded Access.

“Through the Expanded Access Program, Mayo Clinic is the IRB and the Primary Investigator. We take the protocols that they send us. They’re really doing the research under special guidelines by the federal government,” said Robinette.

Foundation Health Partners, which runs non-profit medical centers in Fairbanks, already has an established relationship with Mayo Clinic, so it was easy to step into this study. As of this week, there are 2,280 sites with 6,234 doctors and 18,286 patients registered in the study.

One of those is in Fairbanks.

“The first two units of convalescent plasma have been ordered,” he said.

Scanlon says the Blood Bank of Alaska is developing a small stockpile of various blood types from donations made by Alaskans who have had the disease.

“The criteria for a donor are they must have had a diagnosis of COVID-19 documented by a laboratory test. And complete resolution of mild to severe symptoms for 28 days or more,” said Scanlon.

Scanlon says there are not enough accurate, widespread antibody tests available to add other folks, so right now in Alaska, the study will only take folks who were tested positive for the virus.

“So unfortunately, folks who believe they’ve had COVID, and I’m not doubting that they did, but they don’t have the documentation to know for sure that they have those antibodies and that can only be assured with that laboratory test being done,” he said.

Convalescent plasma has been studied in the US in outbreaks of other respiratory infections like the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza virus pandemic, 2003 SARS-CoV-1 epidemic, and the 2012 MERS-CoV epidemic. But Dr. Robinette says those were small studies.

“One of the advantages of this is we’re going to have a huge number of patients who have been treated, to analyze. We’re gonna get better data from this than we got from any of those previous trials which were much smaller patient numbers,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic study could influence preventatives like vaccines or treatments for COVID-19 as well as help the study of other diseases.