Demand for blood plasma outpaces donations in COVID-19 fight

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Hannah Grinwis donated her blood before and imagined she might be making a difference in someone's life. 

And now the Grand Valley State University student has recovered from COVID-19 and is donating the plasma in her blood, she doesn't have to imagine. She knows her donation is being used to help someone else who is battling COVID-19.

"Helping anyone would be phenomenal," said Grinwis, 25.

That's because the virus-fighting antibodies in the blood of recovered coronavirus patients are being used by a growing number of doctors to help thousands of the sickest patients battle COVID-19.

Grand Valley State University student Hannah Grinwis, who has recovered from COVID-19, donates plasma to help other patients.

It's not clear yet if it's the answer to a virus that continues to plague the world. But doctors say evidence is mounting and showing plasma's promise as it helps patients who were once in intensive care units and reliant on ventilators to leave the hospital and recover.

But many more people who have had COVID-19 and recovered are needed to donate their plasma to continue the victories that doctors are witnessing.

"I really believe this might be a key for the future for the treatment of coronavirus and possible even for some future viral disease that may surprise us the same way this virus did," said Dr. Gordana Simeunovic, infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. "I think this is very promising treatment. But we don’t have enough plasma."

For more than 100 years, health care providers have used the liquid part of the blood, known as plasma or convalescent sera, from those who have recovered from illnesses to help those stricken with the Spanish Flu, H1N1, SARS and more.

Now, doctors are turning to plasma from recovered patients in the battle against COVID-19, which has infected and claimed thousands of lives around the globe.

Simeunovic, who oversees Spectrum Health's COVID research program, said she infused the first three patients with plasma donated from recovered COVID-19 patients on April 10. All were very sick with the virus, had been intubated and were getting treated in the intensive care unit. But they have all since been discharged from the hospital and are recovering.

Since then, Simeunovic has infused another 18 patients with plasma but said she is prioritizing the plasma to be used in those who are the sickest with the virus.

"My goal long-term would be to start treating everybody with plasma," said Simeunovic, who is also a clinical assistant professor at Michigan State University. "I think plasma would work wonderfully with patients who are moderately ill and try to prevent further disease progression to severe disease."

The people who are getting plasma are not showing any side effects. What is still needed, she stressed, is more donors.

“The possibilities presented by this new treatment are encouraging: it is affordable, easy to administer and rarely has side effects,” Simeunovic said.

“I would like to invite everybody who recovered from coronavirus to consider donating plasma. This treatment is not available from a pharmaceutical company. It’s not like we can pay more to a pharmaceutical (company) to make more drugs. This really depends on those who recover. They should volunteer and donate plasma.”

Dr. Lowell Hamel, chief operating officer of Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph, hails convalescent plasma from a medical perspective, and also a dramatic personal journey.

Dr. Lowell Hamel recovered from coronavirus after becoming infected in April.

He contracted the novel coronavirus in April even though he was not seeing patients and had no underlying health conditions. It caused him to be hospitalized on a ventilator with respiratory failure — and the disease nearly robbed him of his life.

But once doctors infused him with plasma, he turned around a few days later and is now at home in Berrien Springs, gaining his strength back.

But Hamel, 64, said it took a "heroic effort" to find someone who had recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma and called it a "moral mission" for survivors of the virus to help others who are battling the disease.

"We don’t have really much that works in this, and the data is mounting that we can turn the tide of the virus with the use of convalescent serum," Hamel said.

Dr. Lowell Hamel is on the mend after contracting coronavirus in April and credits donated plasma for his recovery.

Spectrum Health joins several Michigan health systems that have been treating patients with plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19, including Henry Ford Health, Ascension Health, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System and Michigan Medicine.

A top doctor at Henry Ford Health also contracted COVID-19 and nearly lost his life until his colleagues treated him with convalescent sera. Dr. Scott Kaatz, medical director for professional development and research in the division of hospital medicine, took care of some of the first COVID-19 patients at the hospital and then contracted the virus himself.  

Kaatz, 62, was on a ventilator and got five experimental treatments, including plasma.

Dr. Scott Kaatz was treated for coronavirus and received care that included donated plasma.

“Did some, all or none of them work? We don’t know,” Kaatz said. “I’m hopeful that as the science progresses, we may know."

Nearly 4,000 COVID-19 patients have been treated with convalescent plasma across the nation, according to the Mayo Clinic. In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated the clinic as the lead institution providing coordinated access to investigational convalescent plasma for hospitalized patients with severe or life-threatening COVID-19.

Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and pediatrics at Michigan State University and part of the leadership of the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, said there are clinical trials underway because anecdotal stories are not enough to definitively say that plasma is an effective intervention in COVID-19.

"We are trying to learn from the experience," Paneth said.

The project has more than 10,000 people signed up to donate their plasma to patients with COVID-19. It's not clear if all qualify but project leaders are working with Amazon and Microsoft to design a system to link donors with donations sites and patients who need the donation.

"Always, we will need donors," Paneth said. 

Spectrum Health reached out to Grinwis, who is among the patients who have been infected with COVID-19 and recovered. She had not had any coronavirus symptoms for 14 days before she got a screening and another test to determine she no longer had the virus.

Grinwis, a graduate student studying to become a physician assistant, is donating on a weekly basis and has already gotten a notification that her first plasma donation was delivered to Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

She is planning to donate each week so she can help others.

“It is by no means a cure for coronavirus," Grinwis said. "But it’s currently being used in patients who are critically ill and struggling with their battle with coronavirus in ICUs.

"My donation would be given to them in hopes it will buffer their immune system and ramp up their immune response in order to hopefully help fight this infection.

“I love to be able to help and give back to the people in my community who have been affected by COVID-19.”