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[Guest article] COVID-19 research – what is the plasma programme?

Head of the Clinical Trials Unit, NHS Blood and Transplant
25 November 2020

Finding treatments for coronavirus (COVID-19) is at the forefront of medical research and trials. One of which is the convalescent plasma programme. Here, I explain more about it and how you can help.

What is the convalescent plasma programme?

The convalescent plasma programme is collecting donated blood plasma from people who’ve had coronavirus, for a clinical trial that could save lives. Blood plasma is the liquid that carries your red and white blood cells around your body.

If you donate your blood plasma, NHS Blood and Transplant test it to see if you have a high level of antibodies. If the antibody level is high enough, we supply the donation to hospitals working with us in the REMAP-CAP and RECOVERY clinical trials. The plasma you donate could save lives.

Donations are being taken in towns and cities across the country and by the end of the year there will be 42 venues where you can donate.

How does plasma treatment help people with coronavirus?

After you’ve had a virus, your plasma contains antibodies that your immune system produced to fight the infection. People who have had coronavirus may have what is called convalescent plasma. This is plasma that has high levels of antibodies in it. Those who are more badly affected by the virus generally produce high levels of antibodies.

We are particularly focused on the neutralising antibodies that are produced. These are proteins, which attach themselves to the spikes on the outside of the coronavirus. These antibodies stop the virus from attaching themselves to more cells and spreading further.

NHS Blood and Transplant are providing antibody-rich plasma to hospitals to transfuse into people who are struggling to develop their own immune response.

Does plasma treatment work?

There is promising evidence that convalescent plasma works, but it’s never been properly tested. That’s why we’re carrying out the world’s largest randomised controlled trial (RCT), to get clear answers. An RCT is a type of study that measures how effective a treatment is.

If convalescent plasma is shown to be effective, it will be made available outside of the trial. But people who’ve had coronavirus need to donate for everything to work.

Who can donate plasma?

Anyone who has had coronavirus – either you’ve had the symptoms or had a positive test – can offer to donate at www.nhsbt.nhs.uk. You will need to meet the standard blood donation criteria (such as being age 17 or over).

You also need to meet certain criteria on the day, such as having high enough iron levels. Antibody levels vary greatly, and only donations with a high level of antibodies can be used. For this reason, those who have the highest antibody levels will be prioritised. These include:

  • people who needed hospital care
  • men
  • older people
  • Black and Asian people

If you fall into other categories, you may not be called in as quickly, but we still want to hear offers to donate from everyone who has had coronavirus or the symptoms.

Who has donated plasma so far?

  • More than 188,000 people have offered to donate plasma.
  • More than 1,000 donations are now being taken a week.
  • 10,000 units of high antibody plasma have been collected.
  • More than 2,300 people have received plasma transfusions.

How to donate your plasma

Search ‘donate plasma’ or go to www.nhsbt.nhs.uk and complete the online form. Someone will then be in touch.

Please note that the timing will vary depending on your recovery date and whether you’re in a group shown to have higher antibody levels. You’ll be asked to give a blood sample first.

If the antibody levels are at the high level needed, you will be invited back to donate plasma.

Donation takes about 45 minutes and the whole visit should take about one hour 15 minutes. Plasma donations are being taken at 23 blood donor centres and at 19 pop-up plasma centres.

Your body replaces the donated plasma in about 24 to 48 hours. Your body also quickly replaces the donated antibodies, so donation won’t affect your antibody levels.

About NHS Blood and Transplant

  • NHS Blood and Transplant is a joint England and Wales Special Health Authority, reporting to the Department of Health and Social Care.
  • NHS Blood and Transplant provides the blood donation service for England and the organ donation service for the UK.
  • They also provide donated tissues, stem cells and cord blood (blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord).
  • They are an essential part of the NHS, saving and improving lives through public donation.

Lise Estcourt
Head of the Clinical Trials Unit, NHS Blood and Transplant

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