In the uncertainty surrounding this coronavirus pandemic, the profound changes that come with each new day are testing the resilience and cooperation amongst us all. Social distancing and heightened public health awareness have dominated national headlines, and many individuals are seeking out ways to help each other. In keeping with its humanitarian mission to alleviate suffering in the face of emergencies, the American Red Cross is mobilizing volunteer blood plasma donors nationwide to help those affected by the coronavirus. In coordination with a program established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Red Cross now collects convalescent plasma from coronavirus survivors as a potentially effective and lifesaving treatment for those currently battling the coronavirus.
What is convalescent plasma?
Plasma is the largest liquid portion of the blood, and contains many nutrients, hormones and proteins that the body needs to stay healthy. Convalescent plasma is plasma collected from an individual who has recently recovered from an infection. When a person is sick, the immune system produces antibodies specific to the virus in order to fight off the disease. Convalescent plasma collected from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 contains antibodies developed against the virus and could possibly help others fight the infection.
In the past, convalescent plasma has been used to fight the rapid spread of new diseases and has been a potentially lifesaving treatment option when vaccines or medications were not yet available. It was initially discovered in the 1890s as a successful treatment for the measles and has since been used in successful trials against multiple viruses, including H1N1 and other coronaviruses that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In March 2020, the Red Cross developed an ongoing process to identify potential donors, collect COVID-19 convalescent plasma and distribute it to hospitals for patients in need. The process includes several screening measures to ensure that only those who have fully recovered from their coronavirus infection are able to donate plasma and that general blood drives remain an environment safe from disease exposure.
Though this coronavirus is categorized as a respiratory illness, those who become ill may have a range of different symptoms. For many people, the disease presents with mild to moderate fever, tiredness and cough. Other symptoms that have been reported in association with the coronavirus include shortness of breath, chills, muscle aches and pains, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Typically, these symptoms will begin to present about five to six days after being exposed to the virus but may take as long as 14 days to begin to show. This 14-day incubation period means that many individuals must self-quarantine for two weeks after possible exposure, as numerous days may pass before an individual knows whether they’ve been infected.
Due to the dedicated efforts of healthcare workers across the country, many individuals have been able to fully recover from coronavirus infections over the past several weeks. Those who experience only mild symptoms typically recover about two weeks after the onset of illness, and the median time to recovery for those with severe symptoms ranges from three to six weeks. Though recovery time varies on an individual basis, a person may generally be considered recovered if they feel well overall and have not experienced any COVID-19 symptoms for at least 14 full days.
Coronavirus survivor donations
Since convalescent plasma has already been identified as a safe treatment for most individuals, the FDA recently announced a nationwide effort to investigate the efficacy of convalescent plasma as a treatment option for coronavirus patients. Though convalescent plasma has yet to be proven an effective treatment for COVID-19the Red Cross supports this FDA initiative. The Expanded Access Protocol allows use of convalescent plasma for those seriously ill, those with life-threatening disease, or those at high risk of progressing to a serious or life-threatening disease. The American Red Cross is screening potential donors, facilitating collection of convalescent plasma and distributing these plasma products to hospitals and providers.
As always, the main priority of the Red Cross is the safety of its donors, staff and the patients who receive blood product transfusions. To ensure the safety and well-being of everyone involved, the Red Cross developed a Donor Eligibility Form. Potential donors submit basic information regarding their COVID-19 diagnosis and recovery on that form, which helps determine their convalescent plasma donor eligibility. In order to participate in convalescent plasma donation, individuals must also meet all regular blood donation criteria. To find more information on convalescent plasma donation eligibility requirements, visit the COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Donation Page.