Mercy Health Explores Treating COVID Using Plasma

Patients at Mercy Health participated in a nationwide clinical trial that explored using convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19.

At the height of the global pandemic last April, Cincinnati’s Mercy Hospital partnered with the Mayo Clinic to enroll local COVID-19 patients in a nationwide clinical trial. The goal? To conduct a real-time study on whether convalescent plasma was an effective treatment for patients battling COVID-19. Though study outcomes are still uncertain, it’s impressive that “Mayo was able to come up with this protocol and deploy it to the country in an unbelievable amount of time,” says Mercy’s Imran Naqvi, M.D.

Illustration by Diana Bolton

All told, Mercy hospitals in seven states joined the Mayo Clinic study, which included 2,780 medical providers nationwide and lasted until late August, when the FDA announced it had approved convalescent plasma as an emergency use treatment for COVID-19. More than 70,000 U.S. patients received the treatment through the Mayo Clinic’s Expanded Access Program; among them were hundreds of greater Cincinnati Mercy Health patients.

Convalescent plasma—an antibody-focused therapy that “uses blood from people who have recovered from an illness to help others recover,” per mayoclinic.org—is not a new form of treatment. In fact, “it almost seems archaic,” says Naqvi, who notes that he “last heard about it” being used in other countries during both “the initial SARS outbreak” and the MERS outbreak. Today, though, he notes, it’s worth investigating as a potentially promising means of treating the disease. “We need every tool we can in our toolbox to combat this [virus],” he says. The roughly four-month-long Mayo Clinic study essentially measured how hospitalized patients who received the plasma as a treatment did “over a period of 7 days, 14 days, and then to hospital discharge,” says Naqvi. Here in Cincinnati, Mercy paired with Hoxworth Blood Centers to collect and process the plasma from patients who’d already recovered from COVID.

“We saw an overwhelming amount of support from our patients and our community,” says Naqvi. “Any time we needed [plasma] we were able to access it.” It was especially helpful, he adds, that the plasma Hoxworth collected locally stayed local, and was used to treat patients in this region (per the Hoxworth website, many plasma donation centers—even in Cincinnati—ship plasma “to pharmaceutical laboratories overseas”).

In October, the NIH released a statement saying the overall Mayo Clinic study on convalescent plasma had been inconclusive; here in Cincinnati, Hoxworth is scheduled to release its own efficacy data from the Mayo-sponsored study soon, says Mercy Hospital spokesperson Nanette Bentley. Either way, one positive takeaway Naqvi noted is that that “patients who received a high antibody amount early on in their disease process ended up doing statistically better than their cohorts who received it late in the disease process.” No matter what the local results end up showing, the bonus of having participated in such a groundbreaking national study, says Naqvi, is that “we’ve been able to provide this treatment to a lot of our patients.”

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