Health

Trump announces plasma treatment authorized for COVID-19

Many scientists and physicians believe that convalescent plasma might provide some benefit, but it is far from a breakthrough.

Many scientists, physicians believe convalescent plasma might provide some benefit

A recovered COVID-19 patient donates blood in Panama City on May 13. (Arnulfo Franco/The Associated Press)

After expressing frustration at the slow pace of approval for coronavirus treatments, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Sunday the emergency authorization of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients.

The announcement came after days of White House officials suggesting there were politically motivated delays by the Food and Drug Administration in approving a vaccine and therapeutics for the disease that has upended Trump's re-election chances.

On the eve of the Republican National Convention, Trump issued the emergency order — which would make it easier for some patients to obtain the treatment — at a news conference Sunday evening, according to White House officials.

The blood plasma, taken from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and rich in antibodies, may provide benefits to those battling the disease. But the evidence has been inconclusive as to how it works or how best to administer it.

In a letter describing the emergency authorization, the chief scientist for the FDA, Denise Hinton, noted: "COVID-19 convalescent plasma should not be considered a new standard of care for the treatment of patients with COVID-19. Additional data will be forthcoming from other analyses and ongoing, well-controlled clinical trials in the coming months."

A health worker takes plasma from Rep. Cindy Roe for a convalescent plasma donation at the Oklahoma Blood institute in Oklahoma City on Aug. 12. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via The Associated Press)

The White House had grown agitated with the pace of the plasma approval, but the accusations of a slowdown, which were presented without evidence, were just the latest assault from Trump's team on the "deep state" bureaucracy. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows did not deal in specifics but said that "we've looked at a number of people that are not being as diligent as they should be in terms of getting to the bottom of it."

"This president is about cutting red tape," Meadows said in an interview on This Week on ABC. "He had to make sure that they felt the heat. If they don't see the light, they need to feel the heat because the American people are suffering."

The push on Sunday came a day after Trump tweeted sharp criticism on the process to treat the virus, which has killed more than 175,000 Americans and imperilled his re-election chances. The White House has sunk vast resources into an expedited process to develop a vaccine, and Trump aides have been banking on it being an "October surprise" that could help the president make up ground in the polls.

"The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics," Trump tweeted.

"Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3rd. Must focus on speed, and saving lives!"

No hard proof of efficacy

Earlier this month, Mayo Clinic researchers reported a strong hint that blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors helps other infected patients recover. But it wasn't considered proof.

More than 70,000 patients in the U.S. have been given convalescent plasma, a century-old approach to fend off flu and measles before vaccines. It's a go-to tactic when new diseases come along, and history suggests it works against some, but not all, infections.

There's no solid evidence yet that it fights the coronavirus and, if so, how best to use it.

WATCH | Canadian-led research into plasma treatment for COVID-19:

Canadian researchers are leading the world’s largest clinical trial into a possible COVID-19 treatment that uses plasma from recovered patients. 1:58

The Mayo Clinic reported preliminary data from 35,000 coronavirus patients treated with plasma. It said there were fewer deaths among people given plasma within three days of diagnosis and also among those given plasma containing the highest levels of virus-fighting antibodies.

But it wasn't a formal study. The patients were treated in different ways in hospitals around the country as part of an FDA program designed to speed access to the experimental therapy. That "expanded access" program tracks what happens to the recipients, but it cannot prove that the plasma — and not other care they received — was the real reason for improvement.

Administration officials, in a call with reporters Sunday, discussed a benefit for patients who were within three days of admission to a hospital, were not on a respirator and were given "high-titer" convalescent plasma containing higher concentrations of antibodies. They were then compared to similar patients who were given lower-titer plasma. The findings suggest deaths were 35 per cent lower in the high-tier group.

There's been little data on how effective it is or whether it must be administered fairly early in an illness to make a significant difference, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

LISTEN | Inside Canada's race for a COVID-19 vaccine:

A global race for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is underway. More than 160 of them are in different stages of testing around the world. Canada is in this race too. A group of scientists at the University of Saskatchewan's VIDO-InterVac - the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon - are trying to get through a decade’s worth of testing and approvals as early as next year. Today on Front Burner, CBC Saskatoon reporter Alicia Bridges takes us inside a lab working on a Canadian COVID vaccine, and inside the lives of the scientists trying to find it. 28:37

Aiming to ward off a possible run on convalescent plasma after the announcement, government officials have been working to obtain plasma and to team with corporate partners and non-profit organizations to generate interest among previously infected patients to donate.

The head of the FDA, Stephen Hahn, said Trump did not speak to him about the timing of the announcement, which comes just before a pivotal week for the president's re-election chances. Hahn said that "this has been in the works for several weeks" and came after a data validation for which the agency had been waiting.

Rigorous studies underway around the country are designed to get that proof, by comparing similar patients randomly assigned to get plasma or a dummy infusion in addition to regular care. But those studies have been difficult to finish as the virus waxes and wanes in different cities. Also, some patients have requested plasma rather than agreeing to a study that might give them a placebo instead.

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