In the early months of the pandemic, blood donation centers around the country rushed to collect convalescent plasma as it was seen as a potential wonder treatment for Covid-19.
Now many are moving away from plasma collection, and even doing away with antibody testing to find volunteers who want to donate.
With vaccinations up and case counts down, doctors are administering less convalescent plasma, as numerous clinical trials found the treatment does not significantly lower Covid-19 mortality or shorten hospital stays.
In February, the US Food and Drug Administration altered its emergency authorization, limiting use to convalescent plasma with high antibody levels, and in hospitalized patients early in their disease course.
Overall, hospital demand for plasma has diminished, and blood banks are reporting they have enough plasma stockpiled if there is once again a demand, since it has a year-long shelf life.
But while plasma needs have subsided, blood banks now face a blood shortage, which is expected to only get worse through the summer.
Kate Fry, CEO of America’s Blood Centers, a national trade organization of independent community blood centers whose members contribute 60% of the nation’s blood supply said most centers have stopped collecting convalescent plasma, although some are still doing antibody screening.
But at the same time, she says, the nation’s blood supply is in a “precarious” position. “For many blood centers, if not all blood centers around the country right now, we’re seeing less than two days supply of certain blood types.”
Last spring, donation centers large and small ramped up free antibody testing for Covid-19 survivors who came to donate blood. Donors with positive antibodies could donate their convalescent plasma, rich in antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, which could be used to treat patients hospitalized with Covid-19.
Many donation centers now forgo antibody tests, including LifeSouth, which serves 100 southeast hospitals, and Bloodworks Northwest, whose coverage area includes 90 hospitals in the Pacific northwest. LifeStream, a blood bank serving 80 hospitals in southern California, is winding its testing program down, its chief medical officer said.
Versiti, which runs community blood centers in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan, also suspended antibody testing this month, according to spokeswoman Tami Kou.
The situation this spring is in stark contrast to that of a year ago, when officials such as US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other leaders began calling on those who had recovered from Covid-19 to contribute their plasma.
The US Department of Health and Human Services announced an $8 million ad campaign in July “imploring” Americans to donate. In August, the FDA gave the intial emergency authorization to treat hospitalized patients with it.
“All Americans can help spread the word: If you’ve recovered from Covid-19, you can help join the fight by donating plasma, because the fight is in us,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said at the time.
Blood banks could be reimbursed for collecting plasma through funding provided by the federal government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
Throughout 2020 and the early months of this year, Covid-19 survivors stepped up in a big way.
“It’s been astonishing to see how these folks who have recovered from Covid are willing to give of themselves to try and help someone else,” said Dr. Joe Chaffin, chief medical officer for LifeStream. “So while everyone is disappointed that the the product didn’t have as much impact as we had hoped, we can’t possibly thank those donors enough. I salute them with every fiber of my being.”
During a major surge of Covid-19 cases in and around Los Angeles this winter, his blood bank was providing area hospitals with 75 units of convalescent plasma each day. Now demand is down to about one unit per day, he estimated.
Convalescent plasma hasn’t had strong results against Covid-19
Major contracts funding donation centers to collect plasma expire this month. And without promising data, there’s less incentive to renew them.
“The science cast doubt on it, the medical community is losing interest in it, and BARDA is losing interest in funding it further. So all of those things interact and lead to a decision,” said Dr. Kirsten Alcorn, co-chief medical officer at Bloodworks Northwest. “If the science was telling us this was really useful, and nobody paid for it, we would still do it.”