As the Medical Director for Bloodworks Bio, Dr. N. Rebecca Haley’s newest project is one that could, if history is any guide, have a big impact in worldwide the fight against COVID-19. Over the past few months, the virus has disrupted public health systems the world over, leaving officials scrambling to respond.
But Dr. Haley is taking a pioneering path with a century-old technique, using antibody-rich “convalescent plasma” from donors who’ve recovered from COVID-19 to transfuse into patients currently sick with it, giving their immune systems a boost that could prove lifesaving. It’s worked with other pandemics, and Dr. Haley thinks it’s worth a try this time too. Listen to find out why.
Listen below or read on for a full transcript.
As the Medical Director for Bloodworks Bio, Dr. N. Rebecca Haley’s newest project is one that could, if history is any guide, have a big impact in worldwide the fight against COVID-19. Listen now https://t.co/Cd5b50Z3fy. pic.twitter.com/5UJZZ5G8aa— Bloodworks Northwest 🩸 (@BloodworksNW) April 10, 2020
Dr. Haley: Bloodworks is leading the charge for trying to make convalescent plasma, the plasma from these recovered individuals, available for treatment in COVID-19 disease.
John: Hi, I’m John Yeager and you’re listening to “Bloodworks 101” a podcast produced by your friends here at Bloodworks Northwest, designed to educate or inspire you to give either time, money, or blood. COVID-19, seems like that’s all we hear about today and with good reason. But aside from all the bad news regarding the rapid growth of the pandemic, Bloodworks Northwest has some good news to share, and for that story, my colleague Bill Harper, for this edition of “Bloodworks 101” Bill got an interview with Dr. Rebecca Haley, the medical director for Bloodworks Bio.
Bill: Hi, Dr. Haley, and thank you for coming on “Bloodworks 101” to explain our role in a promising new treatment against COVID-19. Using so-called convalescent plasma to help treat patients, can you please tell us your role at Bloodworks and explain this new program?
Dr. Haley: I am medical director of Bloodworks Bio. I am working right now with trying to get plasmapheresis donations that may help COVID-19 patients. We’re in a desperate health crisis because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are getting extremely ill, they’re dying, and we do not have effective medicines or vaccination or other treatments that will significantly change the course of this illness. We are going to try a long-proven therapy, which is collecting the plasma of people who’ve already recovered in order to help the people who have not had a chance to recover because there are proteins in the recovered plasma called antibodies that are good for treatment. In the past, we’ve got to make sure that these also work for COVID-19. We know that they worked for tetanus in 1890, for example, we know that they worked for the H1N1 flu when we have that epidemic. Now, we really need to know if this works well for COVID, and if it does, we need to maximize the positive effects.
Bill: Wow, the process seems so straightforward. How does it work and what’s the science behind it?
Dr. Haley: When a person gets ill with a disease, your body recognizes that you have an enemy and then your T cells and B cells go to work and build antibodies, the proteins that fight off the disease. When you are finished, you probably have a lot of these antibodies in your plasma, and they keep you from getting sick again. That’s what vaccination is based on. Since the people who are getting COVID-19 have never had a chance to see this disease before, we want to take the plasma from the people who’ve already been through this process, and take some of their antibodies and see if we can help the new patients fight off the disease.
Bill: Wow, Dr. Haley, it really sounds like this is just neighbors helping neighbors to get through this. That’s really beautiful in a way and what an incredible way for people who’ve beat the virus to help others recover too. So tell us what kind of donors is Bloodworks is looking for for this program?
Dr. Haley: Our program is looking for people who had the COVID-19 disease and recovered and have been symptom-free for 28 days. If you are healthy enough to be a blood donor, and you’re fully recovered for the 28 days, we would like to hear from you, because we will screen you, and we will tell you if you can be a part of the plasmapheresis program.
Bill: I think a lot of people might not be familiar with the plasmapheresis process, can you explain how that works?
Dr. Haley: We will ask the donor to come out and be screened. And when they go through the process of ensuring that they’re healthy, then they will go on to a plasmapheresis machine. It’s a little machine like the size of a small washing machine, and it’s a centrifuge that goes around and separates the blood cells from the plasma, the liquid part of your blood. There will be one needle stick and your blood will be taken out, separated from the plasma and you’ll get your red cells in your white cells and your platelets back. All we want is the plasma. The reason we want that is because it contains the antibodies, the proteins that are the disease fighters. If you believe you qualify, please visit Bloodworks Northwest website and sign up to be a part of this process.
Bill: A lot of people have safety on their minds right now, is Bloodworks screening donors for COVID-19, and what about going in to donate? Is that a safe thing to do right now?
Dr. Haley: We are not screening for COVID-19. Everyone that we see will have to have had a positive test, and will have to have fully recovered. We’re not testing for COVID 19. Do not come to the Blood Center if you think you have COVID-19. We only have people here who are fully healthy and are able to donate blood. If you are coming in to donate blood, you are as safe as ever.
Bill: Dr. Haley, you’ve been in the blood industry for over 20 years now, some would say you’re a legend and you’re certainly a pioneer. What do you think it means for Bloodworks Northwest to be a part of this promising and new potential treatment for this new disease that seems to be taking the country and the world by storm.
Dr. Haley: This is very exciting for Bloodworks because, although we collect blood and blood products to support our community all the time, I think this is an extremely special time. If we can use our regular blood donation processes to help patients who are suffering from this disease, it is a grand opportunity for us. And it is what we do.
Bill: So other blood centers, universities, and research institutes around the world are conducting similar studies, why are Bloodworks efforts special?
Dr. Haley: Bloodworks is in an excellent position to help in this effort because we were first. We were the first in the country, we were the first epicenter. In order to have plasma that is helpful to patients, you have to have fully recovered, and there has to be some time since your recovery. Since we were first, we’re going to be the first Blood Center that has access
to donors who are far enough away from their acute infection, and are now fully recovered so that their plasma can be helpful.
Bill: Wow, this program really sounds so promising, especially since it’s worked for other outbreaks in the past like you were saying a minute ago. Can you please talk about how the process of getting the convalescent plasma to patients will actually work? It sounds like there will be a lot to keep track of, but also a lot of exciting data coming in.
Dr. Haley: The plasma will have a special tag on it so that we know that it is from these donors. And there is going to be a cooperative national process that is coordinated through the NIH, where people who are sick will have their physician apply to the National supply through an Investigational New Drug Application. And that’s the way the plasma will be distributed to the people who need it. Now, the Investigational Drug Application is just a study so that we can keep a record of what happened when you give people the plasma so that we can know for sure whether or not it was helpful. The Blood Center is going to be central to this collection process that will make plasmas available for study for one of the most promising treatments that we have in the works for COVID-19. Bloodworks is leading the charge for trying to make convalescent plasma, the plasma from these recovered individuals, available for treatment in COVID-19 disease.
Bill: So what partnerships with other organizations does Bloodworks have in this program?
Dr. Haley: Bloodworks is partnering with the University of Washington, National Leaders, and studying the Epidemiology of COVID-19. And we’re taking referrals from them, from people who are well, and we’re also working with the National Institutes of Health so that we can share our resources and our knowledge and our plasma for national studies. We plan to be a part of the nationwide solution to this problem if one exists.
John: Thanks, Dr. Haley, for your tireless work and for this ray of hope. As Dr. Haley mentioned, if you’d like to be part of this groundbreaking development, please go to our website, bloodworksnw.org, or call 206-689-6689. That’s 206-689-6689. Thanks, Bill Harper, for this story, and thank you for listening. I’m John Yeager for “Bloodworks 101.” See you next time and stay safe.