FDA authorizes convalescent plasma for COVID-19

The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma on Aug. 23, opening up more access for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Convalescent plasma contains antibodies from the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients, which can be used to treat people with severe infections. Convalescent plasma has been used to treat patients for other infectious diseases. The authorization allows the plasma to be distributed in the United States and administered by health care providers.

“COVID-19 convalescent plasma is safe and shows promising efficacy,” Stephen Hahn, MD, commissioner of the FDA, said during a press briefing with President Donald Trump.

In April, the FDA approved a program to test convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients at the Mayo Clinic, followed by other institutions. More than 90,000 patients have enrolled in the program, and 70,000 have received the treatment, Dr. Hahn said.

The data indicate that the plasma can reduce mortality in patients by 35%, particularly if patients are treated within 3 days of being diagnosed. Those who have benefited the most were under age 80 and not on artificial respiration, Alex Azar, the secretary for the Department of Health & Human Services, said during the briefing.

“We dream, in drug development, of something like a 35% mortality reduction,” he said.

But top scientists pushed back against the announcement.

Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, professor of molecular medicine, and executive vice president of Scripps Research, said the data the FDA are relying on did not come from the rigorous randomized, double-blind placebo trials that best determine if a treatment is successful.

Still, convalescent plasma is “one more tool added to the arsenal” of combating COVID-19, Mr. Azar said. The FDA will continue to study convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment, Dr. Hahn added.

“We’re waiting for more data. We’re going to continue to gather data,” Dr. Hahn said during the briefing, but the current results meet FDA criteria for issuing an emergency use authorization.

Convalescent plasma “may be effective in lessening the severity or shortening the length of COVID-19 illness in some hospitalized patients,” according to the FDA announcement. Potential side effects include allergic reactions, transfusion-transmitted infections, and transfusion-associated lung injury.

“We’ve seen a great deal of demand for this from doctors around the country,” Dr. Hahn said during the briefing. “The EUA … allows us to continue that and meet that demand.”

Dr. Topol, however, said it appears Trump and the FDA are playing politics with science.

“There’s no evidence to support any survival benefit,” Dr. Topol said on Twitter. “Two days ago [the] FDA’s website stated there was no evidence for an EUA.”

The American Red Cross and other blood centers put out a national call for blood donors in July, especially for patients who have recovered from COVID-19. Mr. Azar and Dr. Hahn emphasized the need for blood donors during the press briefing.

“If you donate plasma, you could save a life,” Mr. Azar said.

The study has not been peer reviewed and did not include a placebo group for comparison, STAT reported.

Last week several health officials warned that the scientific data were too weak to warrant an emergency authorization, the New York Times reported.

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