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Hospitals and blood banks are running out of convalescent plasma for coronavirus patients — here's how to donate

Business Insider logo Business Insider 8/25/2020 insider@insider.com (Aria Bendix)
a man and a woman looking at the camera: A health worker collects plasma from a recovered coronavirus patient in Bogota, Colombia, on August 20, 2020. Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images © Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images A health worker collects plasma from a recovered coronavirus patient in Bogota, Colombia, on August 20, 2020. Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It may take less than an hour to change a coronavirus patient's fate. 

If you've had COVID-19 and recovered, you can donate blood to sick patients — a therapy known as convalescent plasma. The FDA issued an emergency authorization for the treatment on Sunday, which allows doctors to administer the transfusions to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.

The idea behind the treatment is that recovered coronavirus patients have antibodies in their plasma — the yellow, liquid portion of blood — that naturally fight off infection. So transferring this plasma intravenously can help sick people mount an antibody response to the coronavirus.

The treatment has shown promise as a way to reduce mortality among people with acute infection, though doctors are calling for more trials to study how the therapy affects a patient's chances of survival. So far, most research seems to suggest that patients who receive plasma earlier in the course of their infection have better outcomes.

More than 2,700 hospitals have already administered plasma therapy through an expanded-access program led by the Mayo Clinic. The program has delivered plasma to more than 100,000 patients, its website says, though it's scheduled to end on Friday.

The Mayo Clinic has relied on plasma donations from the American Red Cross or local accredited blood donation centers. But these blood donations are often in short supply — many hospitals, blood banks, and organizations like the Red Cross have reported that they don't have enough plasma to meet demand. 

If you've had the coronavirus and want to help, here's what to do.

Separating plasma takes longer than a normal blood draw 

A single plasma donation may help treat up to three patients, according to the Red Cross.

Collecting plasma is slightly different than other blood donations: Medical staff use an automated machine to separate the plasma from the rest of the blood (including red blood cells and platelets). The machine re-circulates these components back into the bloodstream until enough plasma is collected. The process usually takes about 45 minutes, compared to about 10 minutes for a normal blood draw.

People can donate more than once, though the Red Cross asks donors to wait 28 days in between.

The donation process itself relatively simple. The Red Cross asks people to sign up online then wait for a call to learn if they're eligible. From there, donors can schedule an appointment at a local donation center — both the Red Cross and the FDA list sites that are accepting plasma donations.


Video: Does Convalescent Plasma Therapy Work? (QuickTake)

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In most cases, plasma donors are required to be at least 18 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds (though some centers allow people as young as 16 to donate). They must have gotten a clinical COVID-19 diagnosis and be symptom-free for at least two weeks.

People who are pregnant, have given birth in the last six weeks, or have previously been diagnosed with Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or HIV aren't eligible to donate, according to the FDA.

Donations are falling short of demand

Convalescent-plasma therapy dates back to the 1918 flu pandemic. But there are still major limitations to its widespread use: Plasma must be transferred quickly from a donor to a recipient, and both must have compatible blood types.

Blood banks in New York, California, and Ohio recently told Reuters their supply of convalescent plasma dwindled considerably in June and July. Donations to the American Red Cross also fell more than 70% in July — while the organization's demand for plasma more than doubled in the month leading up to July 22. 

An Iraqi phlebotomist holds a bag of plasma donated by a recovered COVID-19 patient at the blood bank in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on June 24, 2020. Asaad Niazi/AFP/Getty Images © Asaad Niazi/AFP/Getty Images An Iraqi phlebotomist holds a bag of plasma donated by a recovered COVID-19 patient at the blood bank in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on June 24, 2020. Asaad Niazi/AFP/Getty Images

That demand is expected to increase now that convalescent plasma has been approved for emergency use by the FDA. Already, several organizations have banded together to encourage donations: In May, a coalition of medical institutions, drug companies, nonprofits, and COVID-19 survivors launched "The Fight Is In Us," a campaign to get more recovered coronavirus patients to donate blood.

What to know before you donate your plasma

Donating plasma is relatively safe, but there's the potential for minor side effects like feeling dizzy or faint.

Doctors advise that donors eat a light meal about three hours before donating blood. They should also drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol the night before and day of the donation. It doesn't hurt to limit caffeine intake, either.

A recovered coronavirus patient donates blood samples for plasma extraction on June 22, 2020. Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Getty © Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Getty Images A recovered coronavirus patient donates blood samples for plasma extraction on June 22, 2020. Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Getty

At a donation center, donors are generally asked to provide a government-issued ID as well as evidence of their previous COVID-19 infection: usually a positive laboratory test, though some locations will accept antibody tests or clinical diagnoses. Some local centers may ask for a social security number, proof of local residency, or US visa for foreign nationals.

From there, donors go through a screening exam to check their body temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. If these readings are normal, they'll be taken to a bed, where their blood is then drawn through an IV.

Some plasma is used to manufacture hyperimmune globulin

Not all plasma donations are used for direct transfusions: Some go toward manufacturing hyperimmune globulin, a drug built from convalescent plasma.

Japan's largest pharmaceutical company, Takeda — one of the companies involved in the "The Fight Is In Us" campaign — hopes to secure FDA approval for its hyperimmune globulin drug by the end of 2020. Donors at the company's 130-plus BioLife Plasma Services centers can receive $200 for each of their first two convalescent plasma donations. The money is loaded onto a debit card, or donors have the option to give it to charity.

Nonprofit blood centers, on the other hand, don't pay people to donate blood. So some blood banks have expressed concern that they're losing plasma supply to pharmaceutical companies. But there are still hundreds of FDA-licensed donor centers you can go to in order to ensure your plasma gets delivered directly to patients.

The big question that remains, however, is whether convalescent plasma therapy can effectively reduce mortality or prevent mild cases from becoming more severe. Some scientists argue it's too soon to tell for sure — meaning plasma donations shouldn't be a widespread treatment yet. Others say there's no time to waste given that the US' death toll is approaching 200,000. 

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