Blood Donated from Recovered Coronavirus Patients May Soon Yield a Stopgap Treatment

Antibodies from the blood of recovered patients is being tested as a stopgap treatment.

(© angellodeco/Adobe)


In October 1918, Lieutenant L.W. McGuire of the United States Navy sent a report to the American Journal of Public Health detailing a promising therapy that had already saved the lives of a number of officers suffering from pneumonia complications due to the Spanish influenza outbreak.

"These antibodies then become essentially drugs."

McGuire described how transfusions of blood from recovered patients – an idea which had first been trialed during a polio epidemic in 1916 – had led to rapid recovery in a series of severe pneumonia cases at a Naval Hospital in Massachusetts. "It is believed the serum has a decided influence in shortening the course of the disease, and lowering the mortality," he wrote.

Now more than a century on, this treatment – long forgotten in the western world - is once again coming to the fore during the current COVID-19 pandemic. With fatalities continuing to rise, and no vaccine expected for many months, experts are urging medical centers across the U.S. and Europe to initiate collaborations between critical care and transfusion services to offer this as an emergency treatment for those who need it most.

As of March 20, there are more than 90,000 individuals globally who have recovered from the disease. Some scientists believe that the blood of many of these people contains high levels of neutralizing antibodies that can kill the virus.

"These antibodies then become essentially drugs," said Arturo Casadevall, professor of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is currently co-ordinating a clinical trial of convalescent serum for COVID-19 involving 20 institutions across the US.

"We're talking about preparing a therapy right out of the serum of those that have recovered. It could also be used in patients who are already sick, but have not progressed to respiratory failure, to treat them before they enter intensive care units. That will provide a lot of support because there's a limited number of respirators and resources."

The first conclusive data on how the blood of recovered patients can help tackle COVID-19 is set to come out of China, where it was also used as an emergency treatment during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. On February 9, a severely ill patient in Wuhan was treated with convalescent serum and since then, hospitals across China have used the therapy on a total of 245 patients, with 91 reportedly showing an improvement in symptoms.

In China alone, more than 58,000 patients have now recovered from COVID-19. Casadevall said that last week the country shipped 90 tons of serum and plasma from these patients to Italy – the center of the pandemic in Europe – for emergency use.

Some of the first people to be treated are likely to be doctors and nurses in hospitals who are most at risk of exposure.

A current challenge, however, is that the blood donation from the recovered patients must be precisely timed in order to maximize the number of antibodies a future patient receives. Doctors in China say that obtaining the necessary blood samples at the right time is one of the major barriers to applying the treatment on a larger scale.

"It's difficult to get the donations," said Dr. Yuan Shi of Chongqing Medical University. "When patients have recovered from the disease, we would like to collect their blood two to four weeks afterwards. We try our best to call back the patients, but it's sometimes difficult to get them to come back within that time period."

Because of such hurdles, Japan's largest drugmaker, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, is now working to turn neutralizing antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients into a standardized drug product. They hope to launch a clinical trial for this in the next few months.

In the U.S., Casadevall hopes blood transfusions from recovered patients can become clinically available as a therapy within the next four weeks, once regulatory approval has been received. Some of the first people to be treated are likely to be doctors and nurses in hospitals who are most at risk of exposure, to provide a protective boost in their immunity.

"A lot of healthcare workers in the U.S. have already been asked to quarantine, and you can imagine what effect that's going to have on the healthcare system," he said. "It can't take large numbers of people staying home; there's not the capacity."

But not all medical experts are convinced it's the way to go, especially when it comes to the most severe cases of COVID-19. "There's no knowing whether that treatment would be useful or not," warned Dr. Andrew Freedman, head of Cardiff University's School of Medicine in the U.K.

"There are going to be better things available in a few months, but we are facing, 'What do you do now?'"

However, Casadevall says that the treatment is not envisioned as a panacea to treating coronavirus, but simply a temporary measure which could give doctors some options until stronger options such as vaccines or new drugs are available.

"This is a stopgap option," he said. "There are going to be better things available in a few months, but we are facing, 'What do you do now?' The only thing we can offer severely ill people at the moment is respiratory support and oxygen, and we don't have anything to prevent those exposed from going on and getting ill."

David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Robin Cavendish in his special wheelchair with his son Jonathan in the 1960s.

Cavendish family

In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.

Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Kirstie Ennis, an Afghanistan veteran who survived a helicopter crash but lost a limb, pictured in May 2021 at Two Rivers Park in Colorado.

Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram

In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.

Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.

In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.

On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Melba Newsome
Melba Newsome is an independent science and health journalist whose work has appeared in Health Affairs, Scientific American, Prevention, Politico, Everyday Health and North Carolina Health News. She received the June Roth Award for Medical Journalism for a feature on genetic testing in Oprah magazine. She currently serves as core topic leader on health equity for the Association of Healthcare Journalists.