Coronavirus survivor’s blood may save lives of other victims

New Yorker Tiffany Pinckney is paying her good fortune forward as one of the first coronavirus survivors to donate her blood in hopes of saving lives from the deadly disease.

During the first week of March, Pinckney, 39, developed symptoms including a fever and chills. Soon, the single mother couldn’t catch her breath, and deep breathing caused immense chest pain.

“I remember being on my bathroom floor crying and praying,” she told the Associated Press.

Now in recovery, she’s been given the chance to help save lives. Doctors hope that plasma from Pinckney’s blood, which contains the neutralizing antibody that saved her from COVID-19, may be used to treat a patient sick with the virus. Doctors say the treatment could reduce the severity of the illness.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency treatment this week.

“It is definitely overwhelming to know that in my blood, there may be answers,” she said.

The campaign to use the potentially life-saving plasma came from doctors including David Reich, president of Mt. Sinai Hospital, who is also credited with Pinckney’s recovery.

“There’s a tremendous call to action,” Reich said. “People feel very helpless in the face of this disease, and this is one thing [they] can do to help their fellow human beings.”

The practice is not proven, but hospitals in New York and Houston have already begun asking former patients to consider donating.

“We just hope it works,” he said.

Plasma infusions, or “convalescent serum,” have been used throughout the past century to treat infamous outbreaks including measles, bacterial pneumonia and the 1918 flu pandemic.

Doctors say that those who survive these infections did so thanks to proteins in the blood plasma, called antibodies, which were created by the immune system to attack that specific virus. The antibodies can last for months or years in the body — although they don’t have a timeline yet for COVID-19’s antibodies.

Vaccines are the ideal treatment, but they can take a long time to develop. Meanwhile, plasma infusion can be “a stopgap measure that we can put into place quickly,” said Washington University’s Dr. Jeffrey Henderson, who is working with a team of researchers to study the treatment.

Henderson added that “this is not a cure per se, but rather it is a way to reduce the severity of illness.”

Dr. Rebecca Haley of Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle assures that patients who donate will have plenty of antibodies left.

“We would not be making a dent in their antibody supply for themselves,” she said.

Survivors are heeding the call en masse. Michigan State University says more than 1,000 people have signed up with the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, created in partnership with dozens of hospitals that hope to send their now-recovered patients to help.

Only those who are symptom-free are invited to donate, and will be required to take a test to prove the virus has been eliminated from their body, and that their antibody levels are high enough. They also need to be otherwise healthy enough to meet standard blood donation requirements.

“You don’t want to take plasma from someone who had a mediocre immune response. That wouldn’t be helpful,” said Dr. Julie Ledgerwood, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Last week, Chinese doctors reported that five patients given convalescent plasma had shown improvements; however, they also received various other therapies, so physicians can’t be sure what did the trick.

Studies are now being organized in Spain, China and the US to analyze plasma’s power to accelerate the recovery of sick patients, and are also testing plasma’s efficacy as a prophylactic measure for health care workers who are at a high risk of exposure.

Doctors pray Pinckney’s donation can help sick patients now.

“It’s humbling,” said the mom of two sons, ages 9 and 16. “And for me, it’s also a beacon of hope for someone else.”

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