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UPMC Studying Whether Convalescent Plasma Can Help Coronavirus Patients With Mild Symptoms

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Many of the clinical trials for drugs against COVID-19 are for severely ill patients.

"It's a much more dramatic situation," said Dr. Clifton Callaway, principal investigator and executive vice-chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

UPMC is participating in a study that will examine whether convalescent plasma can help people who come to the emergency department with mild symptoms.

"Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of the blood from people who've had COVID19 and recovered," Dr. Callaway said. "And that component of the blood contains antibodies. And antibodies are the immune response that can help clear the virus and fight the virus."

The FDA has authorized emergency use of convalescent plasma to hospitalized patients with severe disease. But what if that's too late?

"I think that's an opportunity that we might have to change the course of the illness more easily than if we wait until things are really, really bad, and try to rescue somebody," Dr. Callaway said.

The randomized, controlled, single-blind study is part of a multicenter NIH trial involving 600 patients across 50 U.S. medical centers. The researchers are looking for people at high risk for severe illness: people over 50, people with heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, and people who are immunocompromised.

Participants will receive either the plasma or saline with vitamins. Patients won't know the difference, but health care workers will.

"We don't want people to downplay their symptoms because they think they got plasma," Dr. Callaway said.

Study participants will get the IV in the ER, then go home. For the next two weeks, they'll get a phone call every other day.

"Did you have to go to the hospital? Did you have to go back to the emergency department?"

The idea is to see if convalescent plasma can keep people from being hospitalized. A central, commercial supplier will distribute this blood product.

"I do worry about running out, because blood is always a precious supply," Dr. Callaway said. "Plasma is one part of the blood, and now this convalescent plasma, which is from people who've had COVID-19 and recovered, that is double, double gold."

At the moment, other cities are getting enrollment priority.

"I am a little afraid Allegheny County is having more cases now than two weeks ago, and I hope we can avoid going to the top of the list to start enrolling people here," Dr. Callaway said. "And the best possible thing for our city would be if we don't have to enroll anybody in Pittsburgh and just help run the trial."

The study is on a tight timeline. Enrollment will be finished by September, with results in time for flu season.

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