Diana Berrent learned she had tested positive for COVID-19 on a Wednesday in mid-March. Within a day, she had received 30 emails from people urging her to donate blood.
Friends and acquaintances, aware of her diagnosis, passed along a pressing request from New York's Mount Sinai Health System, one of the first centers to seek plasma, a blood component, to be used in a therapy that might fight the deadly disease. Berrent, 45, said she immediately recognized the need for the precious plasma — and the demand that would follow.
"When I saw that email going around, I saw what was going to happen in the landscape," said Berrent, a photographer and mother of two who lives on Long Island. She went on to found Survivor Corps , a grassroots clearinghouse that connects people who have recovered from COVID-19 with organizations eager to collect their blood.
"What I saw was going to emerge was a free market where survivors were a commodity."
Nearly two months later, Berrent's prediction is coming true. The coronavirus has infected more than 1.2 million people in the U.S., and now government scientists, academic researchers and for-profit pharmaceutical firms all are scrambling for blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors in hopes of developing a range of potential treatments.
In Minnesota, a program coordinated by the Mayo Clinic has collected plasma from more than 12,000 COVID survivors for transfusion into more than 7,000 gravely ill patients, the result of a massive public appeal led by government leaders and nonprofit groups like the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, for-profit companies that typically pay $50 per donation of plasma used in other lifesaving therapies are advertising aggressively — and significantly bumping up their rates for COVID donors.
In Utah, John and Melanie Haering, who contracted COVID-19 aboard the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship, received gift cards worth $800 after making two donations apiece at a Takeda Pharmaceuticals BioLife Plasma Services center. BioLife runs several of the more than 800 paid-plasma collection sites in the U.S., part of an industry that produces plasma protein therapies used to treat rare, chronic conditions such as hemophilia and in medical emergencies.
John and Melanie Haering contracted COVID-19 aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess. BioLife, a paid plasma collection site, gave the Haerings gift cards totaling $800 for donations of their blood plasma — to be used for possible therapy for those battling the disease.(Courtesy of the Haerings)
"Given the urgency and importance of collecting convalescent plasma from the small population of recovered COVID-19 patients, BioLife is currently offering an added incentive for the first two donations from recovered COVID-19 patients," Takeda spokesperson Julia Ellwanger said in an email.
The money was "a nice surprise" for the Haerings, though they said they were motivated more by the opportunity to prevent others from suffering.
"If we could help anybody, we'd go every day," said John Haering, 63, a retired railroad manager who spent two weeks in a hospital in Japan after testing positive for the virus.
Donors like Berrent and the Haerings are needed to supply the building blocks of potentially lifesaving treatments. Rich with antibodies, convalescent plasma from COVID-19 patients is being tested as a possible therapy to promote recovery in people who are critically ill with the disease.
It's also being collected to create a concentrated antibody serum known as hyperimmune globulin that may prevent or halt infection in the future. Similar products are used to treat rabies and illnesses like infant botulism. If plasma from COVID-19 donors is shown to halt the disease, coming up with an antidote could offer companies the prospect of making millions of dollars.
And there's the possibility of a third treatment, monoclonal antibody therapy, which would use antibody-producing cells from high-antibody donors to create lab-produced molecules to fight the disease.
All three therapies are promising, but all three require human blood plasma, said Dr. Michael Busch, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and director of the Vitalant Research Institute, one of the largest blood center-based transfusion medicine research programs in the U.S.
"At some level, they're all competing with the regular blood banks like mine," Busch said.
Only a fraction of those infected with COVID-19 have recovered sufficiently to donate, though more are eligible every day. But as demand for donors has grown, so has the need to wrangle the supply, ensuring that competition for plasma doesn't undercut the larger mission, said Dr. Michael Joyner, who heads the Mayo Clinic program.
"We're going to get it all worked out," he said. "It's in everybody's enlightened self-interest to do this in an intelligent way."
To avoid what Joyner described as a "range war" for COVID-19 plasma, he's spearheading an effort that calls for unprecedented collaboration to distribute separate streams of plasma among producers of therapies in a global market estimated to reach $35.5 billion by 2023.
"It's like the oil market," he said. "You send oil that needs one type of refining to one market and oil that needs another type of refining to another market."
His plan — floated last month to a group that included representatives from philanthropic organizations along with executives from for-profit and nonprofit blood collectors — relies in part on blood plasma from up to 10,000 Hasidic women in New York City, where the Orthodox Jewish community has been hit hard by the disease.
Tens of thousands of people have fallen ill with the virus in the city's Hasidic neighborhoods, and more than 700 have died. In recent weeks, thousands of men in the community who have recovered from COVID-19 have rushed to donate plasma. Chaim Lebovits, 45, who has helped organize the effort, said the donations are an act of faith. Related Stories
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