COVID-19: President's response to trials of convalescent serum

Our President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, comments on trials investigating the potential of convalescent serum as a treatment for COVID-19.

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci is connected to this work through his position as Executive Director of King's Health Partners, an Academic Health Sciences Centre bringing together King's College London with three NHS Foundation Trusts: Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley.

“Convalescent plasma transfusions are not a silver bullet solution for the coronavirus health crisis, however they do have the potential to be hugely beneficial.  The USA has charged ahead with this – they have already treated 500 patients with convalescent plasma, and although it is much too soon to know the results anecdotally it seems to have helped patients recover.  I know that many survivors of the virus are looking to help as I have had numerous people contact me directly asking how they can donate their blood plasma.

“We know that survivors of COVID-19 will have antibodies which can block the virus from entering human cells in their blood serum.  If these ‘neutralising antibodies’ can be donated to patients with COVID-19 then recovery and chances of survival should be much higher than without this treatment.  Convalescent plasma serum transfusions have been used in other settings with success in the past – this is true for some cases in the SARS epidemic and some COVID-19 cases in China where patients treated with convalescent serum showed the benefits.

“The concept is very simple: you take blood plasma from a person who has recovered from the virus which will contain antibodies that their body has made in the process of clearing the virus, and you put this into the patient who is grappling with the virus – transferring immunity (for a transient amount of time).

“There are several potential uses for this treatment: it could be used to treat critically ill patients (patients on ventilation) to reduce the risk of death and increase chance of survival, it could also be given to people who are ill with the virus but not yet needing ventilation to try to accelerate the immune response to prevent the patient from getting to the stage where they need ventilation.  And then another way this could be used would be to go into care homes and give it to people who have been tested positive for COVID-19 to try to halt the development of a serious form of the disease by providing transient immunity.

“This is not a vaccine because a vaccine uses a virus or viral proteins to provoke immunity, and here you are transferring immunity transiently from someone who has made an immune response.

“There is an urgent need for this kind of intervention – let’s hope we can start treating patients with this very very soon.  A trial is being planned for convalescent plasma transfusions like this in the UK.”

This response was released as a Science Media Centre Rapid Reaction on Monday 20 April 2020.

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