Antibodies from blood of recovered COVID-19 patients may be key to fighting coronavirus

Antibodies could be key to fighting virus
Antibodies could be key to fighting virus 04:32

Patients who have been infected with the coronavirus and have recovered could be key to fighting the disease. One potential treatment uses the antibodies built up in the blood of patients who have survived the illness.  

This past weekend, Dr. Eric Salazar supervised a treatment at Houston Methodist Hospital he hopes will become the first proven therapy against COVID-19.

Here's how it works: Blood taken from recovered patients contains antibodies that can attack the virus. Dr. Salazar and his team transfused plasma – the part of blood containing those antibodies – into two critically-ill patients.

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One potential treatment being studied uses blood plasma collected from coronavirus survivors, whom one doctor credits as "incredibly generous people." CBS News

Dr. Salazar told CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook he is monitoring patients very closely to see if the transfusion works.

Dr. LaPook asked, "Have you discussed a goal for how many people you'd like to be able to treat a day using this method?"

"As many as possible," he replied.

Such transfusions may have helped a small number of patients in China, but much more study is needed.

Kindergarten teacher Julie Thaler, a COVID-19 survivor, has donated her blood to possibly be used in a similar transfusion in New York City.

"I am one of the survivors," she said. "It's a tough ride; I got very lucky, and it was a way that I could give back."

A lot of it will depend on the donor pool. Dr. Nicole Bouvier and her team at New York's Mount Sinai will soon be using the same treatment just performed in Houston.

When asked why she thinks it might work, Dr. Bouvier said, "We have some idea, partially from the 1918 influenza epidemic, that taking blood plasma from one person and giving it to another actually may improve outcomes."

Antibodies against coronavirus are not only being used for treatment. They also help identify people who may have been infected without knowing it.

"An aggressive testing regimen with our front lines to find out who has levels of immunity is an opportunity to get back to the new normal as quickly as possible," said Lou Reese, who, with Mei Mei Hu, is a co-CEO of United Biomedical, an international bio-tech company.

It is one of several companies to develop a simple, rapid blood test for COVID-19 antibodies to see if someone has been infected and built up immunity to the virus.  Their current plan: test as many of the residents of Colorado's rural San Miguel County as possible, nearly 8,000 in all.

"We'll be able to find out who's been exposed and who has antibodies, and hence, who has a certain level of immunity to this," said Reese.

Once the antibody test is more widely available, researchers will be able to screen large numbers of potential donors for antibody-rich plasma to be used for treatment.

Dr. Salazar said, "I don't think any center across the country is going to have any trouble recruiting donors that have recovered from COVID-19. These are incredibly generous people."

Dr. LaPook told "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason that testing for past infection and immunity is "hugely important."

"It's very likely that there are a lot of people out there who have been infected with the new coronavirus but had little, few, or maybe no symptoms at all. And this is going to help us get our arms around it.

"Think about it: If it turns out that those people have some immunity, some protection, because of these antibodies, now depending upon how much protection they have, maybe they could go back to the front lines again and we won't have to make this choice between, do we save the economy or do we save the health care system?

"There are a lot of questions here: How protected are people? How long will the immunity last? There are a lot of questions and a lot fewer answers right now."

Dr. LaPook said, "There was a report of just five patients in China who had this done. They had other therapies [done as well], so it's hard to really know. Over the next week or two, they seemed to get better. Again, we don't know if it was the antibody treatment or other medications they were getting. In the past, back in 1918, in the pandemic flu, there was some success in sporadic cases there. [But] there's never been a huge controlled trial to see exactly how this works and in what people it works and for how long it lasts and things like that. This will be an opportunity to do that."