KEY POINTS

  • New York State and New York City together comprise the largest COVID-19 cluster in the U.S. 
  • The tsunami of patients has triggered a search for immediate cures to relieve the overburdened hospital system
  • One of these experimental cures is convalescent plasma

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given one of the top hospitals in coronavirus-hit New York City permission to use "convalescent plasma" experimentally on an emergency basis to treat certain COVID-19 patients.

This treatment is one of a number urgently being tested by both New York State and New York City, which together comprise the largest COVID-19 cluster in the U.S. NYC had 23,112 confirmed cases and 365 deaths as of Thursday evening. New York State had 37,258 confirmed cases and 385 deaths statewide. NYC hospitals are being overwhelmed by a tsunami of COVID-19 positive patients.

The Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem said the convalescent plasma will be harvested from staff members that have recovered from COVID-19, the New York Times reported. These people were quietly asked to consider donating their plasma. But in the age of social media, this quiet request went “a little viral,” and quickly saw 2,000 responses. Researchers at Mount Sinai were among the first in the U.S. to develop a convalescent plasma test.

“It’s kind of difficult scientifically to know how valuable it is in any disease until you try,” said Dr. David Reich, president and COO of Mount Sinai. “It’s not exactly a shot in the dark, but it’s not tried and true.”

Dr. Reich said convalescent plasma will be tried as a treatment for hospitalized patients with a moderate form of COVID-19 and with trouble breathing. The treatment, however, won't be for those in advanced stages of the disease.

”The idea is to get to the right patients at the right time,” he said. “But it’s experimental.”

Dr. Reich said all volunteers will be carefully screened to meet strict criteria. Donors will include people that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the virus that causes COVID-19. The ill people then recovered; have had no COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days; and now test negative. More important, these people now have high levels (also called titers) of antibodies that battle the virus.

Healthcare systems in even the most developed nations are being stretched to breaking point with grim warnings they could soon be overwhelmed Healthcare systems in even the most developed nations are being stretched to breaking point with grim warnings they could soon be overwhelmed Photo: AFP / SEBASTIEN BOZON

“Our expectation, based on reports from the Chinese experience, is that most people who get better have high-titer antibodies,” said Dr. Bruce Sachais, chief medical officer of the New York Blood Center (NYBC). “Most patients who recover will have good antibodies in a month.”

NYBC will collect, test and distribute the plasma, noted the Times. Dr. Sachais said NYBC has blood centers in New England, Delaware and the Midwest. This will allow them to do convalescent plasma harvesting in other regions.

"We’re working with other blood centers and hospitals that may collect their own blood and want to do this. We may not be able to collect enough plasma in New York to help the entire country, so we want to share with other centers to help them.”

Dr. Sachais said the convalescent plasma will be tested to ensure it's not carrying infections like hepatitis or HIV, or proteins that might trigger immune reactions in the recipient. This clean plasma will either be frozen or used right away.

“We think this is going to be an effective treatment for at least some patients, but we don’t really know yet,” according to Dr. Sachais. “Hopefully, we’ll get some data in the next few weeks from the first patients, to see if we’re on the right track.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced plans to resurrect the use of convalescent plasma as an immediate stopgap measure.

"There have been tests that show when a person is injected with the antibodies, that then stimulates and promotes their immune system against that disease," said Cuomo.

"It's only a trial. It's a trial for people who are in serious condition, but the New York State Department of Health has been working on this with some of New York's best health care agencies, and we think it shows promise, and we're going to be starting that this week."