South Texas Blood & Tissue Center fighting COVID-19 with ‘convalescent plasma’

May 14, 2020

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center’s program providing plasma transfusions for COVID-19 patients is a good example of what COO Elizabeth Waltman calls “big medicine.” 

“This is big medicine – this is why community blood centers are so important,” she told members of The Blood & Tissue Center Foundation’s board of directors at their quarterly meeting on May 11. “No pharmaceutical company, no plasma center, no one could do what we did in four days.” 

Waltman encouraged anyone who had been diagnosed with and recovered from COVID-19 to email STBTC at about participating in what is known as the “convalescent plasma” program. 

The transfused plasma includes antibodies developed against COVID-19 while the donor had the infection. Those antibodies are carried in plasma, and they can in some cases provide a boost to the patient’s own immune system. 

Dr. Peter Marks, the head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, spurred the drive for a plasma program in an address to leaders of the nation’s community blood banks on April 4. By April 8, STBTC was collecting plasma from recovered COVID-19 patient David Herrmann. 

“Dr. Marks knew that blood banks were uniquely qualified to meet all the qualifications and knew immediately they could respond to this need for convalescent plasma in America,” Waltman said. “It was quite an endeavor, and I can assure you people were working long hours and overtime to get ramped up that quickly.” 

One of the first patients to receive plasma from Herrmann was San Antonian Jimmie Hayden, who at the time of the transfusion was on a ventilator. Hayden, whose online meeting with Herrmann was featured on ABC “Nightline,” is now at home with his family. 

Since the first weeks of April, 2,178 sites and more than 5,000 physicians across the country have joined the clinical trial documenting the effectiveness of convalescent plasma, with more than 7,200 doses given to patients. 

“South Texas Blood & Tissue Center has provided more than 200 units of the convalescent plasma, the majority of them, to patients here,” Waltman said. “We have sent some to hospitals in the other part of the U.S. and most recently we have started providing convalescent plasma to the U.S. military.” 

The concept of convalescent plasma isn’t new – German researcher Emil von Behring received the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the first one awarded, for his discovery of a diphtheria antitoxin using plasma. Plasma from recovered patients has been used against conditions as varied as measles and Ebola. 

Waltman said that with enough research, plasma therapy could eventually be used as an early treatment to anyone exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

“That really would be the next best thing to a vaccine,” she said.