Survivors’ blood may hold some Covid-19 relief

30 August 2020 - 00:00
Jonathan Louw, blood service CEO and a Covid-19 survivor, is one of the first plasma donors.
Jonathan Louw, blood service CEO and a Covid-19 survivor, is one of the first plasma donors.
Image: Supplied

Hundreds of donations of blood plasma from Covid-19 survivors are sitting on ice waiting to be trialled on severely ill patients in SA.

The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) has been collecting the antibody-rich plasma from people who have fully recovered from the disease in the first part of a national trial to establish whether it can be an effective treatment.

As soon as it gets the green light from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), the next phase of the trial, which involves putting the plasma into patients who need it, will be rolled out.

Even though the US has authorised the emergency use of such therapies, the World Health Organisation remains cautious about endorsing the use of convalescent plasma to treat those who are ill, saying evidence from a few clinical trials have not been convincing enough.

People who have recovered from Covid-19 typically have high levels of specific antibodies, while those in the grips of the disease typically have an immune system that is overwhelmed.

The aim of the therapy is to supplement the antibody levels of patients with severe Covid-19 to assist their immune systems in mounting a defence against the virus.


The number of days after full recovery survivors can donate plasma

SANBS CEO Jonathan Louw, who had Covid-19, has become one of the first convalescent plasma donors.

“As a convalescent Covid-19 victim myself, I have been donating pretty much every two weeks. You get attached to a machine which will take out the plasma and return the red blood cells. For that reason you can donate a lot more frequently,” he said.

Louw tested positive after returning from an overseas trip in March.

“I did get pretty ill, but luckily I am here to tell the tale. Covid-19 is actually an interesting disease. In the early stages the antibody levels are actually quite low. In the six months as you go through recovery they start to increase.”

-30 Degrees

The temperature at which plasma is stored

Louw said he was now most likely at the peak of his antibody production.

“I’m the perfect person to be bleeding right now, that’s why I keep donating.”

He is among about 100 recovered patients who have made plasma donations.

Louw said the next phase of the trial was important to prove whether the plasma treatment worked.

“The evidence is truly anecdotal ... the US has come forward to say that some of the data they have looks like it certainly makes a significant difference.

“We are going to prove that it does work. Once we have that evidence, one can scale up and make this treatment available.”

Louw is expecting the green light from SAHPRA within the next few weeks.

The donors go through a stringent screening process and have to meet all the criteria, including being in good health and fully recovered from Covid-19.

The National Bioproducts Institute, a non-profit pharmaceutical organisation based in Durban, also has its eye on plasma for the development of a product, known as hyperimmune globulin, to help patient recovery.

“Both the SANBS and the Western Cape Blood Service are conducting a clinical trial on convalescent plasma therapy and thus already have a pool of donors who have come forward,” said Shanay Singh, head of business development at the NBI.


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