As we continue to search for effective COVID-19 treatments, the use of blood plasma from people who had recovered from the virus seemed like a good thing. But on Friday morning, the New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration had postponed its emergency permit. The article also states that executives from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and even the famous Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed their skepticism about blood plasma as a life-saving treatment.
Experts expressed concern about the plasma treatment data so far. The Mayo Clinic released data on 35,322 people treated in a plasma study. Although initial data showed some benefit from plasma treatment within 3 days of infection, this itself was cause for concern. Three days is a very small window to get plasma to the patient and blood plasma cannot be made. It must be donated by someone who has recovered from a case of COVID-19 on their own.
Human blood is like soup. If you sift out all the large pieces, you will be left with a rich broth. In the blood, this broth is plasma and has been thought to contain potentially life-saving COVID-19 antibodies. After you contract certain viruses, your body saves the disease to fight it again. These memories are antibodies. The theory about blood plasma was that giving some of the antibody soup to people who had recovered would allow the plasma to trick the body into fighting the virus.
There are also major problems with plasma treatment. Most plasma experiments have no controls. In scientific experiments and medical studies, control is an important part of proving your hypothesis, your idea. In the case of plasma studies, control groups would include some COVID-19 patients receiving plasma from someone who has never had the disease. That would be the placebo. This would test if it was the plasma that had the hardening effect or the antibodies in the plasma. Given the nature of the disease, The Times speculated that "… just as many patients and their doctors – who knew they could get treatment under the Mayo program – were unwilling to risk a placebo."
This does not mean that the plasma is no longer available, even though the FDA has postponed the emergency approval. The approval would have made the use of plasma easier, but doctors can still treat their patients with plasma if they can get it as we wait for more data.