While President Trump announced Sunday an emergency authorization for the use of convalescent plasma to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients, such plasma is already being administered to infected U.S. servicemembers.
Trump heralded the recent policy change as a “breakthrough,” but the benefit of COVID convalescent plasma, or CCP, in treating those infected with the novel coronavirus remains unknown.
In the treatment, plasma is collected from people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection and whose blood therefore contains antibodies. In theory, these antibodies could help neutralize the virus and improve the outlook for patients who are newly fighting the disease. But the medical community has not determined whether injecting CCP into sickened patients kick-starts the immune system and aids in recovery.
Even so, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration statement accompanying the president’s announcement notes that the “potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.” The plasma can also complement other treatments, rather than replace them.
Under a program started in May by the U.S. Army’s Medical Materiel Development Activity, with FDA approval, 14 people have been treated with CCP, officials said.
“They’ve received the plasma and are being followed over the disease course to see how quickly they recover,” Army Lt. Col. Sandi Parriott, director of the activity’s Force Health Protection division, told Military Times last week.
Data on the outcomes of such plasma treatments is then sent to the FDA, she said.
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Of those 14 CCP recipients, half were treated downrange, according to Carey Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Army medical activity.
Two of the 14 were active-duty servicemembers. Four dependents, two contractors, one Defense Department civilian and two retirees also received CCP, Phillips said in an email.
Three foreign nationals, who received “special permission,” also received the plasma, Phillips said.
Twelve of the 14 were older than 50 and every recipient was dealing with severe to life-threatening disease, according to Phillips.
CCP harvested from recovered military volunteers has been placed at nearly 30 locations worldwide, including military bases and aboard Navy ships.
While it remains to be seen whether convalescent plasma is an effective treatment for those sickened by COVID-19, “there’s very little risk in using it,” Parriott said.
“You’re giving antibodies from someone who has fought off the disease,” she said. “You think that would help, and help the body mount a better immune response against the virus, but we don’t know for sure.”
The U.S. Defense Department hopes to obtain 10,000 units of COVID convalescent plasma by the end of September. The trials are ongoing and Parriott suspects that final determinations regarding the therapy’s efficacy should be known in the next six months or so.
As of Monday, there have been 36,232 COVID-19 cases in the uniformed ranks, according to the Pentagon.
The Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany — the largest American hospital outside the United States and the treatment and evacuation hub for wounded troops coming from Iraq and Afghanistan — was the first of 27 sites approved for the CCP protocol. Others include Madigan Army Medical Center, Washington; Yokota Air Base Medical Treatment Facility in Japan; U.S. Naval Hospital Guam; and the Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado. The plasma is also available at at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, and the military medical center in Baghdad.
“A lot of our population is outside (the continental United States),” Parriott said. “We have to get a little more creative on how we prevent and how we make these treatment options available.”
Several Navy ships now serve as CCP sites as well, with the aircraft carrier Nimitz becoming the first to be approved last month.
Other ships capable of administering the convalescent plasma to COVID-19 patients include the carriers Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald R. Ford, as well as the amphibious assault ship America, according to an Army release on the program.
To be eligible for the CCP program, sites must be capable of treating severe or life-threatening COVID cases and they must volunteer by reaching out the medical activity for consideration, Phillips said.
While the efficacy of convalescent plasma in COVID patients remains unknown, plasma has been used in the past to successfully treat other respiratory viruses, noted Navy Capt. Gilbert Seda, head of the Nimitz’s COVID-19 response team, in the Army release.
In order to qualify for CCP treatment, patients must have a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection, have provided informed consent, have severe or life-threatening COVID-19 illness and not have any medical contraindications to receiving the plasma, Dr. Seda said.
“To be clear, the CCP treatment protocol does not change the Navy’s plan to get Sailors with severe COVID-19 illness off the ship as soon as possible,” Seda said.
If you have contracted and recovered from COVID-19, go here to learn more about donating your plasma.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael Place contracted COVID-19 in March and has now donated plasma several times, according to an Army release.
“This is Soldiers and Soldiers’ Families taking care of Soldiers,” said Place, the commanding officer of the Army’s 18th Medical Command in Hawaii. “You sit in this comfortable chair for a little while, they take the plasma from you and give you some cookies and snacks and some departure gifts.”
About Geoff Ziezulewicz
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.