NJ hospitals tapping antibodies of the recovered in battle against COVID-19

In the race to identify useful treatments against COVID-19, hospitals across New Jersey have started to tap the blood of those who have recovered from infections of the virus in the hope that they can turn their antibodies into medicine for current patients.

So-called clinical convalescent plasma trials are underway at numerous medical centers on the front lines of the pandemic, including Hackensack University Medical Center, Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, University Hospital in Newark and St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. A limited number of patients have already been infused with plasma drawn from recovered COVID-19 patients, and doctors are awaiting results.

Among those hoping to benefit is the large and loving family of Gary Riemer, an 85-year-old grandfather who is on a ventilator at St. Barnabas, fighting for his life against COVID-19. The protocols for the trials are rigid, though, both for donors and recipients, experts say.

“I have not lost a grandparent yet,” said his grandson, Brian Singer. “This is the hardest time I have ever had to go through at any time in my life. “

The large and loving family has been actively recruiting potential plasma donors. “We have people who are ready to donate to the general public,” Singer said. “And we have people likewise who want to donate specifically to my grandpa, because he was a second father to so many.”

St. Barnabas, which has joined the Mayo Clinic’s clinical convalescent plasma trial, is not soliciting plasma donors.

But Hackensack University Medical Center, which launched its FDA-approved study about 10 days ago, is asking those who have recovered from COVID-19 to come forward. Its first plasma donor was Dr. Benjamin Planer, a neonatologist who works at Hackensack and beat the virus.

“You look around you and you see people that are so sick and dying,” he said. “This is something that is so easy for me to be able to do, to go down to a blood bank, to donate some blood. And if it could help another human being, I mean, why not?”

Dr. Michele Donato runs the convalescent plasma program at Hackensack University Medical Center. She says that to qualify, donors first must have tested positive for the coronavirus, then test negative and have no symptoms for at least 14 days. Then their blood is screened for other diseases, and tested for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. The best donors have plasma that’s teeming with antibodies.

“And if we can take a little of their plasma — which is where the antibodies float, which is the clear portion of the blood — we can take some of those antibodies and then infuse those antibodies in a sick person,” she said. “Those antibodies can in theory fight the virus for them.”

The response to the hospital’s call for donors has been large.

“We had about 3,000 donors reach out to us, either by email or through our webpage,” she said. “The challenge is to find the donors who actually qualify.”

The treatment protocol, Donato said, is for COVID-19 patients to get 500 milliliters, or about two cups, of donated plasma, which is a clear, gold color.

Convalescent plasma treatments have worked for patients in other coronavirus epidemics, like SARS and MERS, said Donato, an oncology and hematology specialist. Hackensack treated four of its own hospitalized COVID-19 patients with plasma this weekend and hopes to see a positive response within the next few days.

Not every patient qualifies for the rare treatment.

“Of course, we will test the plasma on those patients who have early disease, and on those who are sicker and on ventilators in the ICU,” Donato said. “But we definitely would like to treat patients early.”

Among other hospitals using the treatment is Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, which treated its first seven patients this weekend. University Hospital in Newark, where six have been given donated plasma, took to Twitter about its program and issue a call for donors. That elicited a promise to donate from Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, who has tested positive and been in self-quarantine.

Barnabas — part of the RWJ Barnabas Health network, which is an underwriter of NJTV News — has been obtaining its plasma from the Red Cross and the New York Blood Bank.

The hospital didn’t comment on Gary Riemer’s potential as a recipient, saying in a statement that it’s “… transfusing this plasma into select patients who match the stringent criteria,” but that availability’s limited due to low antibody levels and the need to match donated plasma to the patient’s blood type.

That’s not keeping the family from trying to get people to sign up.

“Regardless of the outcome, we’re encouraging people to donate,” Singer said. “Because if it can’t help my grandpa, it can help someone else’s grandpa or grandma.”