Baptist Health Lexington has turned back the clock to find ways to treat the new coronavirus called COVID-19.
The hospital has used blood plasma transfusions from a recovered coronavirus patient, a method used to treat the 1918 flu pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 illness and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The transfusions were performed on two critically ill coronavirus patients.
The mortality rate for patients in their conditions is 50 percent to 80 percent, according to Dr. Mark Dougherty, infectious disease specialist and Baptist Lexington hospital epidemiologist.
But he said the two patients were improving and that he was “cautiously optimistic” about their conditions.
“We don’t know if this is going to be the appropriate treatment,” said Dr. Firas Badin, medical director for research. “Certainly, we have big hopes for it; otherwise we would not do it.”
Badin obtained FDA approval – which was required to do the transfusion – and Institutional Review Board approval to use the experimental coronavirus treatment. Badin and the Kentucky Blood Center worked together to secure a plasma donation.
The FDA approved the treatment under an emergency investigational new drug application on March 24, according to Baptist Health. The treatment was “fast-tracked” over the weekend thanks to the partnership with the Kentucky Blood Center.
Dougherty said the donor was discovered through some of the doctors’ friends. Because he had recovered from coronavirus, the donor’s plasma had antibodies. The donor gave about 700 milliliters of plasma.
Even though the plasma treatment method has been used on diseases since the early 1900s, Badin said it is much safer now.
“Transfusing plasma is very common in this country,” he said. “We do it a lot. It’s not that complex, and usually it’s not that risky. It’s much safer to give a unit of plasma today than it was 100 years ago.”
The hope is the antibodies will help the patients fight the virus. But the treatment isn’t the ultimate remedy, the doctors said. It is experimental, and outcomes are somewhat uncertain, they said.
“I think we all think the ultimate answer here is a vaccine,” Dougherty said. “We don’t have a vaccine right now . . . and this is essentially a way of giving someone a vaccine that’s immediately effective when you give it.”
But there’s still uncertainty about the effectiveness of the plasma treatment, and donors may not be easy to come by since the plasma has to be donated by someone who has recovered from COVID-19.
“There haven’t been many people that have been sick that long in Kentucky,” Dougherty said. Badin added that finding donors would likely be the hardest part of the process in the future.
Baptist Health said it may contact other fully recovered coronavirus patients to ask them to donate plasma. The plasma transfusion method was being evaluated by the American Red Cross, according to the Red Cross’ website.
The Red Cross was working to establish a program with clinicians to provide plasma from recovered patients as needed.