More than 50 Spectrum Health patients battling COVID-19 infections have received transfusions of antibody-rich plasma donated by survivors of the virus.

The growing number of plasma donors has allowed a wider range of patients access to the therapy.

The first plasma donations, made in early April, went to critically ill patients.

“Now, there are more donors than we had in the beginning, so we are able to treat some moderately ill patients—not all of them, but a big percentage,” said Gordana Simeunovic, MD, the infectious disease specialist leading the plasma treatment effort at Spectrum Health.

Yet more donors are needed. Dr. Simeunovic encouraged those who have overcome COVID-19 or have antibodies to the novel coronavirus to consider donating their plasma.

Researchers are studying the effectiveness of the treatment, called convalescent plasma therapy.

Spectrum Health doctors work with physicians at the Mayo Clinic, the national site for coordinating treatment access for plasma therapy.

With 5,000 U.S. patients treated so far, the researchers published the first study on the therapy. The study, which focused on the safety of plasma therapy, noted that “reports of serious adverse events related to transfusion of the plasma was small,” at less than 1%.

That is an important first step in investigating a new therapy, Dr. Simeunovic said.

“My first goal when I treat a patient is not to cause any harm to the patient,” she said.

Future studies will address the effectiveness of the treatment.

From individual observations, Dr. Simeunovic finds the results encouraging.

“We had patients who were very sick who received plasma and, over the next few days, we would see improvement,” she said.

She also believes the therapy may work better when given early in the course of the illness.

“When we give plasma, we are hoping the antibodies will find the virus and kill the virus,” she said. “If we wait too long, the virus has already done some damage. There are inflammatory responses triggered in the organism. Killing the virus won’t actually stop the disease.”

Versiti Blood Center of Michigan has received 145 convalescent plasma donations from 73 donors, said spokesman Duane Brodt.

Each donation can help two to four patients, Dr. Simeunovic said.

Who can donate

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows people to donate plasma if they tested positive for COVID-19 with a diagnostic test, such as a nasopharyngeal swab, said Heidi Taylor, a Spectrum Health clinical research nurse.

Those who could not get a COVID-19 test at the time of their illness may qualify if they had a positive antibody test after recovering.

Some conditions must be met, Taylor added. For example, the antibody test must be one that has received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, such as the two-step test offered by Spectrum Health.

To get an antibody test, potential donors may contact their primary care provider for an order.

Also, donors must be eligible to donate blood and must have no sign of symptoms at least 14 days before the donation. A negative test result for COVID-19 is not necessary.

Anyone interested in donating plasma may email covid19research@spectrumhealth.org for information.

Spectrum Health is contacting patients who tested positive for COVID-19 to ask them to consider donating plasma after they have recovered from the infection.

The response has been heartwarming, Taylor said.

“Many of these people have been through a lot. They were very ill themselves. And some lost family members,” she said. “But they were still willing to listen and think about a donation.

“It gives you a lot of pride in the community.”