Coronavirus Survivor: “My Blood May Have Answers”

New York – Tiffany Pinckney recalls fear when COVID-19 stole her breath. So when she recovered, this New York City mother became one of the first survivors in the country to donate her blood to help treat other critically ill patients.

“Definitely, the overwhelming knowledge that my blood may have answers,” Pinckney told The Associated Press.

Doctors around the world are dusting off a centuries-old treatment for infections: infusions of blood plasma packed with immune molecules that helped survivors defeat the new coronavirus. There is no proof that it will work. But former patients in Houston and New York were among the first donors, and now hospitals and transfusion centers are preparing so that hundreds of potential survivors can follow in their footsteps.


“There is a huge call to action,” said Dr. David Reich, president of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, who stated that Pinckney had recovered and ran to draw his blood. “People feel very helpless in the face of this disease. And this is something they can do to help their fellow man.”

As the treatments kick in, “we just hope it works,” he added.

What history books call “convalescent serum” was used during the 1918 flu pandemic, and also against measles, bacterial pneumonia, and many other infections before the advent of modern medicine. Why? When an infection occurs, the body begins to make proteins called antibodies, designed to fight that germ. Those antibodies float in the survivors’ blood – specifically the plasma, the liquid, yellowish part of the blood – for months and even years.

When new diseases emerge and scientists look for vaccines or drugs to treat them, this is “an interim measure that we can apply quickly,” said Dr. Jeffrey Henderson of the University of Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, who is helping develop a national study.

This “is not a cure per se, but rather a way to reduce the severity of the disease,” he added.

Doctors don’t know how long antibodies to COVID-19 persist in the body of a survivor.

But, for now, “they are the safest on the streets,” said Rebecca Haley, a physician at Bloodworks Northwest, Seattle, who works on donor identification. “We would not be making a dent in the supply of antibodies to themselves.”

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration said hospitals could apply for emergency permits to use convalescent plasma on a case-by-case basis, and Houston Methodist Hospital and Mount Sinai seized the occasion.

And a desperate population responded: Families turned to social media for help on behalf of their sick loved ones, and recovering people asked how they could donate. According to Michigan State University, more than 1,000 people enrolled in the COVID-19 National Convalescent Plasma Project. Dozens of hospitals formed that group to stimulate donations and research.

Potential donors cannot appear directly at a donation center. Those with a proven infection who have been asymptomatic for several weeks should be retested to ensure that the virus has disappeared. In addition, they must be in good enough health to meet the requirements of a donation and pass additional tests to determine if their antibody level is high enough.

“You don’t want to draw plasma from someone who has had a mediocre immune response. It wouldn’t be helpful,” said Dr. Julie Ledgerwood of the National Institutes of Health (NIh).

Last week, Chinese doctors reported that five patients who received convalescent plasma showed some improvement about a week later. But they also received other therapies and, in the absence of a rigorous study, there is no way of knowing if it was the plasma that made the difference.

Studies are being planned to evaluate convalescent plasma outcomes versus usual care in coronavirus patients, and to prevent infection in people at high risk of exposure such as medical workers.

Another approach: the Spanish company Grifols, specialized in the manufacture of plasma, wants to concentrate the donated space in a factory in North Carolina, creating a high-concentration version that would also have to be tested.

Furthermore, NIH researchers are measuring the antibody levels of survivors to find out how strong the vaccines being worked on must be so that they can protect the population. Other teams, including one from Beijing Tsinghua University, are studying which antibodies are the most potent, to be copied in a laboratory and turned into drugs.

But donations from people like Pinckney could be used as soon as the transfusion centers can process them. She fell ill the first week of March. His first symptoms were fever and chills. He couldn’t breathe and deep inhalations caused his chest pain. This 39-year-old single mother cared for her 9- and 16-year-old children.

“I remember being on my bathroom floor crying and praying,” he recalled.

So when from the Mount Sinai hospital, where she was diagnosed, they called her to monitor her recovery and ask her if she would consider donating, she did not hesitate.