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COVID survivors are vital to science and a brighter future


October 7, 2020

Photo courtesy of Vitalant

Brian Forte recovered from COVID-19 and donates his blood plasma monthly to help researchers who are working to understand the disease and save lives.

The spike in COVID-19 cases tied to the University of Colorado last month is troubling, but those who have recovered have the opportunity to play a critical role in saving lives, improving health outcomes, and understanding immune response to the novel coronavirus.

Vitalant Blood Donation, formerly the Bonfils Blood Center, is collecting plasma from people who've recovered from the virus. It's being used for a number of scientific studies and medical uses, including convalescent plasma for patients who are hospitalized with serious cases of COVID-19.

"I got it, I recovered," said Brian Forte of Denver. "I was sick, but I never thought my life was in danger. If there was a way to help all these other people who were not so fortunate to have such a good bout with it, I just figured it's the least I can do to help out." Forte has been giving his plasma every 28 days since April.

"This is an incredibly important therapeutic right now," said Dr. Larry Dumont, vice president of Research and Scientific Programs for Vitalant in Denver. "It's one of few tools in the toolbox that clinicians have. Many of us think we're not going to have enough [convalescent plasma] in November, December, January. It would be very helpful if college kids or whoever, if they've gotten it, can go to our website."

Convalescent plasma treatment isn't yet a proven treatment, but it may help patients fight the virus by giving their immune system a boost through antibodies donated by people who've recovered from COVID-19. One of the important questions being studied is about the concentration of antibodies, called titers, that are necessary to make an impact in patient health. Vitalant is providing researchers with plasma in various titer strengths for use in several randomized trials across the country.

"Since we're in the blood collection business, we have a lot of systems already in place and we can redirect in these areas," Dumont said.

The organization has a repository in Denver with a large inventory of blood products that have a variety of medical uses. After blood is donated, it is spun in a centrifuge that separates it into red cells, platelets and plasma. A donation from one person could be used to help a number of people with different needs. Blood donations are regularly used for medical procedures such as transfusions.

Every blood donation gets an antibody test to see if the donor has had COVID-19. That data is helping to determine the prevalence of COVID-19 in the United States. Vitalant's research division is also studying various antibody tests, looking at accuracy and usefulness.

If a donor has COVID-19 antibodies in their system, they are given the opportunity to donate plasma. If they agree, they fill out a questionnaire and get another test to see if they qualify to make a plasma donation.

Vitalant is also looking at questions about the durability of a person's immune response, how long antibodies remain in a person's system and their concentration. Medical experts theorize that recovered COVID-19 patients have immunity, but scientists are still working to prove that thesis. If there is immunity, it's not clear how long it might last. Those questions are especially important as a vaccine is on the horizon.

A long-term study of the immune response is just getting underway in Colorado. Vitalant is looking to enroll a few hundred people who have recovered from COVID-19. "If people have an interest in that type of contribution, that would also be really helpful," Dumont said. "That will really help us understand what the immune response is and its persistence over time. And, it will have important implications on the efficacy of plasma and inform some of the questions for vaccinations."

Whether it's COVID-19 or something else, Dumont said it's often tough to find enough sick people who are willing to get an experimental treatment as part of a clinical trial. That's been especially hard for convalescent plasma studies. The treatment has been given emergency use authorization from the FDA. It's challenging to find patients who are willing to take the chance on getting a placebo in a randomized trial when they could get the actual treatment. "It's something my colleagues are struggling with," Dumont said.

He anticipates that some clinical trials on convalescent plasma could be done by the middle or end of 2021. Dumont said he and his research team have been working 80-90 hour weeks since March to try to answer critical questions about how to treat and manage COVID-19. "On one hand, it's very exhausting," he said. "That's rough and you can only sustain that so long. On the other hand, this is an urgent situation. The time is now. It's not later."

Vitalant is always trying to get more people to donate blood, but the organization's job is more difficult during the pandemic. Social distancing has made it tough to have blood drives as usual. They're still happening, but they aren't in pop-up locations. Vitalant's communications director, Liz Lambert, said various groups are still organizing drives, but they are sending people to blood donation centers. A student group at CU is doing one this month. Instead of donating on campus, students are being directed to Vitalant's blood donation center at Tebo Plaza in Boulder at 3113 28th Street. Donors are asked to make an appointment online, although walk-ins are accepted.

Potential blood donors have to be symptom-free for at least 28 days. Those who think they had COVID-19 and recovered are urged to help others by supplying their plasma or enrolling in the long term study.

"It's no big deal to donate blood. If you're a viable candidate and meet the parameters, donate the blood. I was tired for one day, after that I was fine," Forte said. "Your body replenishes quickly, and you seriously could be saving one or more people's lives."


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