Plasma drive draws from COVID-19 survivors

A truck from United Blood Services greets recovered COVID-19 patients as they arrive to donate their life-saving antibodies Tuesday for Brownsville’s first plasma drive organized by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health System at the Courtyard by Marriot.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Brownsville’s first scheduled plasma drive was underway on Tuesday morning in an effort to collect convalescent plasma containing COVID-19 antibodies from those who had the virus and recovered.

The treatment uses plasma — the liquid part of the blood — which in survivors contains antibodies that can fight the virus. The use of convalescent plasma is being studied as a new treatment for the disease nationally.

Doctors in the Rio Grande Valley sought plasma from regional donors, eventually sourcing plasma for critically ill patients from the national stockpile, which according to the drive’s organizers, has dried up quickly as cases surge.

Another drive is planned for July 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Courtyard by Marriot at 3955 N. Expressway.

Dr. Sohail Rao, executive vice president of the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health System, as well as president and CEO of DHR’s Health Institute for Research and Development, said organizers were working to finalize more dates.

“When the surge happened, it became absolutely impossible to keep up with the demand,” Rao said.

The doctor explained that in Brownsville, where the city’s two hospitals are overwhelmed, physicians must ration the available plasma among patients that badly need it, placing extra strain on both healthcare workers and families.

Unlike general plasma donation through private business, DHR’s operation is not a commercial exercise. “This, for us, is a community exercise. We are not making money. We are actually investing money in this,” said Rao.

Rao explained that convalescent plasma is coming from those who have recovered. Although those individuals had COVID-19, the presence of antibodies actually makes their plasma some of the safest in terms of the virus.

“We’re getting patients who have recovered, who have cleared the virus from their blood and tissues, and have created antibodies that are the defense mechanism against the virus,” said Rao.

“We wait four weeks before we take plasma because that’s what the CDC guidelines are. In one week after symptoms end, most of your virus is gone. When we bring the survivors, we actually test whether the plasma has antibodies or not. There is a lot of processing that has to happen before plasma goes into the patient.”

Rao said most of the plasma collected in the Valley so far has gone to Brownsville, where the situation at the hospitals is serious.

At Valley Baptist Medical Center in Brownsville, Dr. Beverly Zavaleta has been leading the convalescent plasma program. Regionally, Doctors Hospital Renaissance is coordinating the participation of the area’s hospitals in a national study organized by the Mayo Clinic.

Should plasma prove an effective treatment, the Mayo Clinic would seek expedited approval through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make the treatment standard.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com