In 2014, I spent 19 days being treated for Ebola in a New York City hospital. I had contracted the virus while treating patients in Guinea, and as no definitive treatments existed at the time, I received convalescent plasma based on its historically therapeutic role. After receiving plasma, however, I struggled to breathe, and my condition deteriorated. Thankfully I recovered, but my story shows that convalescent plasma isn’t innocuous.
That experience, combined with my time as a physician fighting the coronavirus, leads me to find the FDA’s emergency authorization for plasma as a treatment for COVID-19 deeply alarming. The Trump administration’s declaration that convalescent plasma is a “major therapeutic breakthrough” marks this as just another example of politics getting ahead of science. Convalescent plasma may indeed have a beneficial role in treating COVID-19, but only further testing can determine whether it will work effectively for this disease. The FDA’s emergency authorization, however, may make that harder to do, and undermine the credibility of our public-health institutions in the process.
Developed more than a century ago, convalescent plasma—the transfusion of antibody-rich plasma from disease survivors into others suffering with the same disease—was one of medicine’s first real therapeutic breakthroughs. It dramatically improved treatment of diphtheria, measles, and other infectious illnesses. Though side effects, such as allergic reactions or the transfer of other blood-borne pathogens, do exist, they are relatively rare. That’s one reason convalescent plasma is often used to treat infectious diseases without cures, such as Ebola. Further testing in the Ebola outbreak, however, showed that transfusing plasma was not beneficial to patients. Although my case was an outlier and no adverse reactions were associated with its wider use, treatment with convalescent plasma did not significantly improve patients’ chances of survival.