Blood plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 holds promise as a potential treatment that could save lives. But, currently, there's a shortage of donors.
Now, a cross-industry coalition that includes the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, Anthem, LabCorp, plasma companies, blood centers and Microsoft is working to help mobilize thousands of people in the U.S. who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate their blood plasma.
This effort, called The Fight Is In Us, aims to support the rapid development of potential new therapies for patients with COVID-19.
"Roughly speaking, we want every single person who has recently recovered from COVID to donate plasma," said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research and Incubation, speaking with CNBC's health tech reporter Christina Farr Thursday during a Facebook live interview.
"If there is a second wave, we’re going to need every last bit of convalescent plasma," Lee said.
Ongoing research suggests the use of antibody-rich blood plasma, also called convalescent plasma, to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients could help in the fight against the virus until there is a vaccine.
"As a stopgap, that could be really powerful," Lee said.
The coalition organizations are working on two distinct approaches for treating COVID-19 that both urgently require the collection of convalescent plasma. One approach is the development of a hyperimmune globulin, which is being manufactured now and will be studied in clinical trials this summer. This approach is driven by the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, an effort co-led by Takeda and CSL Behring along with other plasma companies.
The second approach is the direct transfusion of blood plasma through the Convalescent Plasma Expanded Access Program, which is currently being administered with authorization from the Food and Drug Administration by the Mayo Clinic.
The use of convalescent plasma harvested from recovered patients and transferred it to patients who are severely ill is not a new idea; it dates back to the 1918 Spanish flu, Lee said.
Through the effort led by Mayo Clinic, more than 17,000 patients have been treating using convalescent plasma.
Clinical research to validate the treatment's safety and efficacy is still emerging. The first large-scale safety study on the treatment based on 5,000 patients suggests experimental convalescent plasma is safe in treating severely ill patients.
Another study of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 infections from Mount Sinai Hospital and Johns Hopkins provided a sign that blood-plasma transfusions from recovered patients improve survival rates.
The shortage of COVID-19 tests means millions of people have not been tested and don't know whether they've had the virus. Another challenge to collecting more convalescent plasma is delayed appointments at blood centers in areas like New York City, where it can take four to five weeks to get an appointment, Lee said.
Microsoft is trying to help this effort in two ways: working with Mitre Corporation to develop a recruitment website, thefightisinus.org, and the launch of a plasma bot, a digital self-qualification tool for donor recruitment.
"We're working with blood centers and plasma centers to get enough telemetry to point you to those centers. And Uber has stepped up to provide free rides to those who have to go long distances," Lee said.
"Right now, this week, we’re hitting the peak of the number of eligible donors. It's roughly speaking 21 days to 60 days from the onset of symptoms. After 60 days, the plasma doesn’t have antibody levels good for this. We really are desperate to capture every last person we can," he said.
Lee also shared his perspective on other major healthcare topics during his chat with CNBC's Farr:
Telehealth: "It's absolutely here to stay," he said, noting the company has seen a huge surge in the use of its Teams app for telehealth visits.
"We see it on the back end with the companies we work with that handle claims. In the U.S. market, there’s been a roughly 30% to 35% drop in the number of office visits with primary care providers and about 5% or 6% off that has been taken up by telehealth. There is every reason to believe that there’s much more growth there that’s possible even with routine office visits," he said.
Data interoperability: The rapid shift to virtual care will drive the need for providers and patients to have access to health data, he said.
"As consumers, we’re going to have a wider array of healthcare providers that we can call up on Teams or Zoom and that means doctors and healthcare providers will be seeing a wider diversity of patients," Lee said. "Now, the question is, 'How does a doctor get a hold of that patient’s health history?' Health data and interoperability, those issues get magnified in this new world," he said.