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Scientists Are Researching Ways To Transfuse Antibodies In Coronavirus Treatment


Most people who get sick with COVID-19 produce antibodies in their blood that seem to protect them from further infection. Now scientists are trying to figure out whether they can prevent COVID-19 in people at high risk of getting it by infusing them with those antibodies. NPR's Richard Harris reports on a study now getting underway.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: One of the first volunteers for this study is a physician at Johns Hopkins. Jonathan Orens had a close brush with coronavirus involving not his work, but his family. His daughter from Los Angeles wanted to come home to be near her sister, who is about to give birth to her first baby. Orens said they did everything they could think of to keep her safe on her flight to Baltimore.

JONATHAN ORENS: She wore a mask. She wore gloves. She had sanitizer. She had wipes. The load on the plane was relatively small. We actually bought the two seats in the row to keep her away from everybody else.

HARRIS: They wore masks in the car home and kept their distance in Baltimore. And just to be sure, about a week after she arrived they went for testing.

ORENS: So all three of us - my wife, myself and my daughter - went for testing. And she was positive, and fortunately my wife and I were negative.

HARRIS: As luck would have it, one of Orens's colleagues at Hopkins was just starting a study to see if purified blood serum from people who have recovered from COVID-19 could prevent the disease in someone else. Orens and his wife signed up for the experimental treatment. They had a 50/50 chance of getting this convalescent plasma from someone who's recovered. The transfusion took about an hour.

ORENS: I didn't feel anything except for the pinprick from the IV. And we went on our merry way.

SHMUEL SHOHAM: We'll follow him along to see if he develops symptoms and if he turns positive.

HARRIS: Dr. Shmuel Shoham is directing this study, which could enroll up to 500 patients.

SHOHAM: So right now we have sites in Houston, sites in Alabama. We're opening up additional sites in Dallas and Arizona. We have sites all over Southern California.

HARRIS: He's also involved in a second study that looks at whether plasma will prevent serious illness in people who are infected but not sick. Shoham says if these strategies work they could help a lot, even in the absence of a vaccine.

SHOHAM: That would give people, I think, a lot of confidence to go back to school, go back to work because if somebody gets sick it's not a tragedy because we can protect them and protect those around them.

HARRIS: Of course, they have to figure out whether it works first. Dr. Jessica Justman at Columbia University in New York tried to launch a similar study this spring, but the disease was disappearing from the city quickly and she didn't have luck recruiting participants.

JESSICA JUSTMAN: Compared to March and April, people have become less worried, less scared of COVID, and perhaps a little bit less inclined to go for a preventive treatment.

HARRIS: That situation could turn around if the disease roars back. And Justman says the idea is well worth pursuing. A similar strategy works for other diseases, including rabies and hepatitis B. Drug companies are planning to manufacture antibodies instead of collecting blood from recovered patients, but those monoclonal antibodies won't be cheap.

JUSTMAN: What I like about the convalescent plasma idea is that if it worked, I see it as something that could really be scalable in resource-limited settings. And I think that's where the convalescent plasma just has this really great potential.

HARRIS: Places like the developing world, where they can't afford pricey pharmaceuticals. As for the Orens family, their quarantine period will end next week, just in time for a quick trip to see the new mom and the family who lives in New York.

ORENS: The plan is really to drive up after she is out of the hospital. Hopefully everything will go well. And we will all be outside. We will see the baby from a distance. I've already been informed by my daughter that I'm not allowed to get anywhere near the baby. And then we'll turn around and come back to Baltimore.

HARRIS: It's hardly the way you'd like to greet your first grandchild.

ORENS: However, it's the price we have to pay to try and get this pandemic under control.

HARRIS: The researchers in Baltimore hope to know by mid-September whether the convalescent plasma will, in fact, inoculate people from COVID-19. Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS NEWMAN'S "FIELD TRIP (SCORE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.