But with a limited number of donors facing growing demand, some families are taking charge and turning to social media to connect with people who may be able to provide blood for the experimental coronavirus treatment. .
Adam Cohen did just that after his brother, David Behrbom, was taken to intensive care at New York’s White Plains Hospital. He comforted Behrbom on Facetime, not knowing it would be the last time the two would speak.
Behrbom, 47, was undergoing chemotherapy for a treatable form of leukemia when he contracted the coronavirus in March.
“It was our worst nightmare. We knew the situation was dire, ”said Cohen. “He may have had normal conversations, but his blood oxygen saturation continued to drop. I needed to do something immediately to help. “
A few months earlier, Behrbom was an active father of two children and a beloved teacher. Now he was fighting for his life against a virus that killed more than 37,000 people in the United States.
Doctors at the hospital prescribed a combination of, an antimalarial and Zithromax, an antibiotic. But that did little to improve Behrbom’s condition.
In search of other treatments, Cohen has heard of convalescent plasma, a part of the blood that contains antibodies that can attack the virus. Blood is taken from people who have recovered COVID-19, and potentially vital plasma is then transfused to patients.
The technique has been used to treat other viral infections, including those caused by H1N1 and SARS, according to the National Institutes of Health. A recent Chinese study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that it may also be effective in treating COVID-19 patients.
The FDA says, however, that although promising “recovery plasma” has not yet been shown to be safe and effective as a treatment for COVID-19. Therefore, it is important to study the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 convalescent plasma. in clinical trials. “
Getting Behrbom treatment has proven difficult. He was not a candidate for clinical trials across the country, many of which focus on narrow subgroups of the population, excluding those who are seriously ill. But he was eligible for a provision of the law called compassionate use, providing patients with convalescent plasma therapy if it could potentially save their lives.
Eager to help his brother, Cohen started getting plasma for Behrbom. But his efforts ended in deadlock; the hospital told Cohen that obtaining convalescent plasma would not be possible as it was limited to clinical trials at the time.
In a final effort, his family sent a donor appeal to his Facebook friends.
“I started to receive phone calls, text messages and people. It may have taken us an hour and a half to ask the general public if they could help my brother that I found someone, “said Cohen.
The donor’s blood group was O negative; a perfect match with Behrbom.
Families across the country are following the same path as Cohen. Amber Bispo of Sacramento, California, asked his Instagram followers on April 1 to help save his 78-year-old father. His message has been viewed almost 60,000 times.
“It’s really a shame to have him so early in the process, because there just aren’t a lot of options for people,” Bispo told CBS News.
A Facebook group, Survivor Corps, with 33,000 members, has grown from a support group to a pipeline connecting voluntary donors with families in need. Among the most recent articles: a Boston family looking for convalescent plasma type B or AB COVID.
The plea bargain began on March 24, when the FDA gave the green light to expand convalescent plasma therapy for investigative purposes. More than 1,040 sites and 950 medical investigators across the country have signed up to participate in expanded access programs since the FDA announced its expansion.
Meanwhile, blood banks across the country, including the New York Blood Center, are calling the survivors of COVID-19 who may be eligible donors.
“We already have dozens of donors that we have recruited and we have the capacity to take hundreds a day, so we are certainly seeing it increasing very quickly,” said Dr. Bruce Sachais, chief medical officer of the New York Blood. Center. “But what we need are people who really meet the criteria. “
Donor eligibility criteria include a prior diagnosis of COVID-19 documented by a laboratory test, complete resolution of symptoms for at least 28 days before donation, and a negative laboratory test for active COVID-19 disease.
While the FDA quickly gave the green light to expand access to convalescent plasma for critically ill patients, authorities have struggled to speed up COVID-19 testing across the country. According to the Covid Tracking Project, which collects and publishes test data available for the U.S. states, the U.S. has tested approximately 3.5 million people, or just one percent of its population.
“There are a lot of people who probably have good antibody responses who really had the disease, but we cannot collect them at the moment because we have no documentation that they really had the disease,” a said Sachais. .
The limited availability of tests has undermined plasma collection efforts. The New York Blood Center, one of the largest in the country, currently has only enough plasma to treat 2,000 patients. They are preparing to eventually treat 6,000 patients a week.
In Texas, Dr. Jeff Yorio of Texas Oncology in Austin treated four COVID-19 patients with convalescent plasma in April. He said his hospital has an increasingly long waiting list of patients hoping to receive a transfusion.
“As soon as someone comes to donate plasma, it is automatically transferred to a patient to receive it. So it’s a constant movement, “he said. “It’s like toilet paper. As soon as it touches the shelf, it comes off. “
The bottleneck in the availability of convalescent plasma has forced him to face a difficult question: who is being treated and who is not?
“Sometimes patients wait from a few days to a few weeks. You hope to give them additional treatments as soon as possible as they may not have weeks with what’s going on, and you’re trying to do everything you can for them, “said Yorio.
But for David Behrbom, the answer came too late. While his brother found a donor via Facebook, his family learned from the hospital that the donor’s plasma was approved only after his death. He was buried last weekend during a closed funeral.
“I have never encountered or thought that I would encounter anything like this in my life and I know it is a story that happens to thousands of people around the world,” said Cohen.