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VA Pittsburgh Participates in COVID-19 Plasma Study

Tubes of blood in a centrifuge used to separate the plasma.
To prepare plasma, a tube of blood is placed in a device called a centrifuge to separate the plasma through a process of spinning.

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System is participating in a nationwide study testing whether antibodies from the plasma of patients who fully recovered from COVID-19 can be used to treat others with the infection.

Since the study began in spring, one VA Pittsburgh patient has received the treatment, known as convalescent therapy.

Convalescent therapy is an experimental treatment some doctors use to treat COVID-19 patients, according to the study’s sponsor, the Mayo Clinic. The therapy involves treating infected patients with donated blood plasma containing COVID-19 antibodies. Antibodies are immune system proteins that help fight infections. When COVID-19 antibodies are present in donated plasma, the plasma is given to a person with the virus to see if it will help them.

Convalescent therapy has been used successfully to fight other viruses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), bird flu and even Ebola.

Dr. Brooke Decker, VA Pittsburgh director of infection prevention, is one of the investigators in the national study.

“The neatest thing about the plasma treatment is that you have people who have been through a bad disease leaning in to help others who are going through the same thing,” she said. “It’s really nice and human, and we’re really happy to be a part of this at VA Pittsburgh.”

More than 1,000 medical sites nationwide are participating in the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Faraaz Shah, a research fellow at VA Pittsburgh, is the medical center’s principal investigator.

“Coronavirus is the biggest health challenge we’ve had in a very long time,” said Shah. “It’s very early and right now we don’t have a lot of treatments available. Of those, convalescent therapy is one of the more prevalent. We’re really excited in VA to be part of this nationwide study.”

The first VA Pittsburgh patient to participate received his plasma donation within 24 hours of consenting. Shah said the Veteran was excited to participate not only for himself, but also because it might help others, as well.

The Veterans Health Foundation, which conducts and supports research in collaboration with institutions, is providing staff to assist with the study, including clinical researchers who work alongside VA investigators.

There is currently no end date to the study and VA Pittsburgh continues to enroll participants.
“We want our Veterans to know we are diligently working toward combating COVID-19 and could use their help,” said Claire Raible, VA Pittsburgh research education and policy specialist.

If you recovered from COVID-19 and wish to donate plasma for the study, visit Covid-19 Expanded Access Program

Writer’s note: Read more about the study at Expanded Access to Convalescent Plasma for the Treatment of Patients, listen to an interview with Decker or watch a VA Research briefing about VA’s involvement in the study.

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