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Plasma is 'liquid gold' in coronavirus fight

Kelly donates as part of clinical trial

May 13, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th, donates plasma at the Vitalant blood bank in Greentree on Monday. His plasma, which contains COVID-19 antibodies, may be given to four patients infected with the coronavirus as part of a nationwide clinical trial.

Blood may be red, but the nurses called it “liquid gold.”

Two bags filled with a yellowish liquid were the end result of U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly's trip to donate his blood plasma.

But the congressman's plasma, which contains COVID-19 antibodies as a result of his recovery from the virus, could be given to four patients infected with the coronavirus as part of a nationwide clinical trial testing whether COVID-19 convalescent plasma can treat those who have the virus.

“If somebody else can benefit because of a small donation you make with your blood, what an incredible thing to do,” said Kelly, R-16th.

The two-hour trip to a Vitalant location in Greentree, Allegheny County, on Monday came from Kelly hearing about the convalescent plasma program and knowing, he said, that participating in it was the right thing to do.

“(It's) very easy to do, very safe to do, and I think more than anything else, you get a feeling that, maybe I helped somebody I'll never meet, I'll never know, but maybe they'll benefit from the hour and a half I spent donating my plasma,” Kelly said.

Convalescent plasma

The blood plasma of people who have recovered from COVID-19 contains antibodies for the disease, potentially helping current patients' immune systems recognize and target SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus at the helm of the pandemic.

The plasma of recovered patients — called convalescent plasma — has been examined as a treatment for other respiratory illnesses, including the original SARS in 2003; the H1N1 flu in 2009-10; and MERS in 2012, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While it hasn't been proven safe and effective in COVID-19 patients, the FDA calls it “promising” and allows the study of convalescent plasma in such patients.

“The concept for using convalescent plasma falls under the idea of passive immunity,” said Dr. John McDyer, director of the UPMC Lung Transplantation Translational Research Program. “Individuals who don't have immunity get immunity from a source, like blood, that is given to them.”

Alongside drug therapies, like remdesivir or steroids, UPMC is studying convalescent plasma as a treatment, along with other research hospitals throughout the United States.

Donating plasma

Kelly said the process for him donating plasma was simple: he asked.

In order to donate plasma at Vitalant, a potential donor would have to show a prior diagnosis of COVID-19 or a test showing antibodies for the virus, not had any symptoms for at least two weeks, and tested negative since the original diagnosis.

Once the blood bank contacted him, Kelly said, he set up an appointment and went to the Pittsburgh-area donation site. He likened the location to an upscale hotel's lobby and said he never felt unsafe while there.

“It was very pleasant, it was very safe,” he said. “The staff there is so professional.”

Some patients seeking medical attention are afraid of contracting COVID-19 in a health care facility. But, Kelly said, as far as research currently shows, that's not a concern for those who have recovered from the illness.

“If you can do something to help somebody else, why wouldn't you?” he asked. “If the only thing holding you back is a fear that you may get infected with something else, you don't have to worry about this.”

While his trip to the facility took between two and two and a half hours, Kelly said a lot of that was paperwork or touring the site. He added that, even during the 90 minutes he was donating his plasma, he was never fully laid up.

“I was kind of working right from the chair, so it was double duty,” he said.

Kelly has already scheduled to donate again in seven days — the earliest he was told he could — and encourages others to do so.

“It's so safe, so easy to do and so beneficial to doing research, doing studies,” he said. “And maybe that blood, the blood that you give, is the plasma that puts us across the goal line and puts us in a position to defeat this horrible virus.”

To Donate

Patients interested in donating convalescent plasma can contact UPMC by emailing c2p3@upmc.edu or by calling 412-647-9779.

To Watch

Check out U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly talking about the importance of donating COVID-19 convalescent plasma:


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Alex J. Weidenhof

Alex J. Weidenhof