Nova Scotia

One of the first in N.S. to get COVID-19 is now the first to give plasma in virus fight

Donnie Clarke has been selected as Nova Scotia's first recovered COVID-19 patient to donate plasma to a clinical trial that's looking at whether antibodies in the blood product can help others beat the virus.

A national clinical trial is looking at whether donated plasma can help a person recover from COVID-19

Even though Donnie Clarke was only sick for a weekend, he and his family quarantined for 28 days, only leaving the house twice to get tested for COVID-19 (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

When Donnie Clarke and his wife, Tracey Kieley, became sick with COVID-19 in mid-March, they were among the first recorded cases in Nova Scotia. Their 12-year-old daughter, Drew, tested positive about 10 days later.

Fortunately, the Timberlea, N.S., family experienced only mild symptoms and recovered.

Now, Clarke, 50, is the first in the province to donate his plasma to a clinical trial — with the hope that his blood product contains the antibodies to beat the deadly virus.

"We got such great care from the health-care folks that we wanted to give something back," he said, after giving a few pints of plasma on Thursday at the Canadian Blood Services clinic in Halifax's west end.

Clarke has given blood before, but donating plasma for the COVID-19 convalescent plasma donor trial 'seems more meaningful,' he said. (Canadian Blood Services)

He's taking part in a national clinical trial to test the effectiveness of COVID-19 convalescent plasma donation as a possible treatment for people sickened by the disease.

In late April, the coast-to-coast trial began with a plasma donation in Vancouver. Already, the first transfusion into a patient has happened, in Montreal. Researchers at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax are also participating.

The theory is that a person who has recovered from a virus develops antibodies that shield a person from being infected again. By injecting their antibodies into someone who is sick, the hope is it will boost their immune system's ability to fight the virus.

While the race is on to create a vaccine, the hope is that plasma is an effective treatment for COVID-19.

It's an unproven therapy for COVID-19, but there's some history to this type of treatment. It was tried more than a century ago during the flu pandemic of 1918.

"The Spanish Flu convalescent plasma was used to treat patients at that time," said Peter MacDonald, the Atlantic director of donor relations for Canadian Blood Services. "I think there's some reason for optimism, but we have to follow the science."

The national blood authority, along with Héma-Québec, will be key in the trial. Twelve hundred donations will be needed. MacDonald said it's expected that about 40 donations a week will be collected.

Clarke heard about the trial from a neighbour. His whole family signed up but only Clarke was selected.

Peter MacDonald is the director of donor relations in the Atlantic region for the Canadian Blood Services. (Canadian Blood Services)

At this point, the collection is only for men under the age of 67 and who have been COVID-19 symptom-free for at least 28 days.

Antibodies developed in women can be harmful in transfusions to patients because of a rare condition that causes lung injury.

"Being pregnant, there can be some antibodies present that make the male donor preferable," said MacDonald.

Donations will go to sickest patients

Clarke's donations could go to a patient anywhere in the country. Plasma will be transfused into patients who are battling a severe infection in the hospital.

Dr. Robert Liwski is a specialist in the pathology of transfusion medicine at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. He said he's excited to be on the local team that's involved in the nationwide trial.

Dr. Robert Liwski, head of hematopathology at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, is part of the national clinical trial. (NSHA)

He said this treatment has seen some success in a small number of patients with COVID-19 in the U.S., but much larger numbers are needed to prove it's an effective therapy.

"We just hope that this trial will provide important information for our patients, and hopefully will show this treatment is efficacious," he said.

Clarke said he won't hesitate if called upon to donate again. 

His optimism is a far cry from the fear he felt two months ago when he and his wife tested positive following a vacation in Florida. If the worst happened, they worried about their daughter.

Clarke, seen here with his wife, Tracey Kieley, and their daughter, Drew, said he's grateful for the support from public health workers who checked in daily, but especially to the nurse who would call his daughter. (Donnie Clarke)

"It was a bit of a scary moment," he said. "The thought of us being hospitalized or getting sicker and her being left alone was not a great time for us."

Two months after contracting COVID-19, Clarke is healthy again and has been able to get back into running. A slight cough is all that lingers.

Clarke has given blood before. His hope is his plasma might provide hope to someone who's experiencing the mental anxiety and the physical threat of COVID-19.

"This time it just seems more meaningful knowing that the plasma can really maybe save a life, hopefully save a life," he said.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.