Plasma from 75-year-old Wisconsin coronavirus survivor given to severely ill patient in clinical trial for COVID-19 treatment

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Safely recovered from COVID-19, Gary Dalgaard, donated his plasma last Friday. On Sunday, it was given to a severely ill patient at University Hospital in Madison as part of a clinical trial.

Doctors will now wait to see if Dalgaard’s plasma, rich in the antibodies that helped him beat COVID-19, can do the same for the recipient.

“We were very fortunate, both my wife and I,” said Dalgaard, a 75-year-old retired manufacturing worker from Sun Prairie. “My wife had a fever, cough and headache. I just had a general malaise, a cough and the world’s worst runny nose. Neither one of us was bedridden.”

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The UW Health trial, part of a large nationwide effort involving more than 40 large hospitals and institutions, will test the century-old technique of using plasma from patients who have recovered from a disease to help those still sick with the same illness. The method has worked in the past, quelling outbreaks of measles, mumps, polio and influenza.

Use of survivor plasma does carry possible side effects including fever, allergic reaction and a very small risk of infectious disease transmission.

Dalgaard said his wife, Gretchann Dalgaard, got COVID-19 from a woman she plays cards with who had traveled to Seattle without quarantining herself upon her return. Dalgaard then got the virus from his wife. Both were sick in early March. Their symptoms lasted a little over a week.

Gretchann plans to donate plasma, too, but a test found she was still positive for the virus. Plasma donation can only take place when the donor has fully recovered from COVID-19.

“They called me a hero. That made me cringe,” Gary Dalgaard said. “A hero is someone who puts themselves at risk. We’re not putting ourselves at risk. This just gave us a feeling that maybe we could do a little bit to help out.”

UW Health would not give any details about the patient who received the plasma. It is not clear how long it will take before doctors know whether Dalgaard’s plasma helped the recipient.

“I think that’s one of the million-dollar questions,” said William Hartman, the UW Health anesthesiologist who is leading the trial. “What we’ve done in giving the (plasma) is try to tip the scales in our favor, but the patient still has to fight the virus.”

On Friday, an elderly man critically ill from the coronavirus received a plasma transfusion at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. His doctor reported Monday that his condition is “stable and improving.”

Mount Sinai Hospital In New York has already given survivor plasma to 53 COVID-19 patients and has hundreds of other survivors scheduled to donate their plasma.

In the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than 1.8 million people, killing 115,000, scientists and doctors are eager to learn whether plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can be an effective treatment.

Driven by this sense of urgency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given hospitals around the country permission to use plasma from recovered patients as an experimental compassionate treatment.

The FDA has also given the go-ahead for trials like the one at UW and another at Johns Hopkins University. The Johns Hopkins trial is testing the use of plasma on doctors, nurses and other first responders likely to have been exposed to the virus. Researchers working with the first responders hope to learn whether plasma can prevent the virus from taking hold or stop it in the early stages.

Usually, treatment and research are distinct activities, but because the pandemic has spread so quickly researchers are eager to see results from the compassionate use of plasma.

“If you’re going to treat people (with survivor plasma) let’s make the best use that we can of the information to see if it’s working,” said Nigel Paneth, a professor in Michigan State University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics who is working on the large national effort to collect and test survivor plasma.

Paneth said early results from compassionate use of plasma are being tracked by the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma project, the nationwide effort that includes the American Red Cross, the New York Blood Center, blood banks, Amazon and Federal Express.

Doctors who have treated COVID-19 patients with survivor plasma are being asked each day to fill out a very short report on each patient, saying if each one has died, been discharged, improved from yesterday, grown worse since yesterday, or remained in the same condition.

So far, two published Chinese studies have shown that survivor plasma shows promise in treating COVID-19.

A recent paper published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences examined 10 COVID-19 patients, all severely ill, who received transfusions of plasma from people who recovered from the disease.

“All symptoms in the 10 patients, especially fever, cough, shortness of breath and chest pains disappeared or largely improved,” the authors reported.

The researchers reported that three of the 10 patients were discharged from the hospital and the other seven improved. Researchers compared them with a group of 10 randomly selected patients from the same hospital, who shared similar ages and severity of disease. Three members of the control group died, six stabilized and one improved.

However, all 10 patients treated with survivor plasma also received various antivirals which could have accounted for their improvement.

A Chinese study of five COVID-19 patients, all on ventilators, appeared in The Journal of The American Medical Association, and showed encouraging results. Four of the five patients recovered from acute respiratory distress syndrome. At 37 days following the plasma infusion, three of the five patients had been released from the hospital; the other two were in stable condition.

A recent study also reported encouraging results on the compassionate use of the drug remdesivir, which was found safe for use, though ineffective against Ebola.

A separate study of remdesivir, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, also reported encouraging results.

The study looked at 53 COVID-19 patients, more than half of whom were receiving mechanical ventilation. Of the 53, 36 showed improvement. Of the 30 receiving mechanical ventilation at the beginning of the study, 17 were able to come off ventilation.

When survivor plasma is used, both the donor and recipient must have the same blood type. Before it can be transfused into the recipient, the plasma is tested for multiple diseases including COVID-19, HIV and hepatitis to ensure it cannot infect the patient.

People who have recovered from a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 and would like to donate their plasma for use in this experimental treatment can learn more by calling (608) 262-8300 or e-mailing uwcovid19project@hslc.wisc.edu.

Mark Johnson has written in-depth stories about health, science and research for the Journal Sentinel since 2000. He is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and, in addition, was part of a team that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for a series of reports on the groundbreaking use of genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy.

Email him at mark.johnson@jrn.com; follow him on Twitter: @majohnso.

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