The world is searching for ways to fight COVID-19, leading to a surge of research efforts to create effective therapies. Thankfully, as the human immune system learns to fight off the disease and people recover, we see some very promising ways that people’s naturally produced antibodies, which are present in convalescent plasma, can be used as treatment for others. The use of convalescent plasma is a technique dating back to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and was effective more recently during the SARS outbreak. Today, there is mounting clinical evidence that plasma collected from those who have recovered from COVID-19 can be used to treat ill COVID-19 patients.
There are two core approaches to using convalescent plasma to fight COVID-19 – each serving a different need. First and most direct is the approach of gathering convalescent plasma donations and making transfusions available to patients, for either therapeutic purposes or, more frequently, as part of research studies and clinical trials. This is a pragmatic and meaningful effort and we applaud all the organizations involved.
A different approach is to use the plasma in larger scale to make a potential therapy called a polyclonal hyperimmune globulin (H-Ig). Through the product manufacturing process, multiple plasma donations are pooled together and the antibodies are concentrated to consistent and reliable levels, meaning the medicine can be delivered in lower volumes and therefore would likely take less time to administer to patients than plasma itself. The H-Ig process also minimizes risk of any known virus or bacteria passing from donor to patient, thanks to the rigorous virus inactivation and removal steps that are embedded in the plasma product manufacturing process. Finally, H-Ig also has a longer shelf life, which permits easier storage and shipping for any outbreaks in the future. These attributes also make H-Ig relatively easy for hospitals to manage and distribute this potentially lifesaving medicine to patients.
The question is, how can we scale up the manufacture and distribution of H-Ig treatment? One promising approach has been developed by the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, which has been formed by the world’s leading plasma companies: Biotest, BPL, LFB, and Octapharma along with CSL Behring and Takeda. The “I” and “g” in CoVIg-19 stand for immune globulin, which the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance will use to create an investigational medicine. With advisory support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, these leading scientists, innovators, and experts in drug manufacturing have joined together in an effort to accelerate the development of a potential H-Ig therapy for COVID-19. They are collaborating across key aspects such as plasma collection, clinical trial development, and product manufacturing. Plasma-derived therapies, like H-Ig, have already been shown to be effective in treating severe viral respiratory infections. The combined capability of these leading commercial manufacturers gives us hope for a scalable, reliable and sustainable treatment for COVID-19.
At Microsoft, we conducted a careful (but rapid) assessment, including consultation not only with our own experts but also several external partners. This assessment involved gaining an understanding of the underlying science and potential medical benefits. We are now convinced that the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance has a real chance to save lives, at significant scale, and possibly much sooner than other approaches currently being developed. We were also impressed that these alliance members had committed to working together for the public good, setting aside commercial and competitive goals. We are thus devoting our computing infrastructure, plus engineering and research personnel, to support this esteemed group and kick off the first phase: helping healthy individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to sign up to donate plasma at licensed plasma collection centers across the United States. Together with the alliance partners, we’re launching the CoVIg-19 Plasma Bot, a self-screening tool that anyone can use to see if they qualify to donate their plasma. Like Microsoft did with the CDC Coronavirus Self-Checker bot and more than 1,300 other COVID-19 bots around the world, we’ve followed standard protocols to help guide individuals through the qualification and education process.
The Plasma Bot and the home page and donor recruitment site for the alliance will live at https://covig-19plasmaalliance.org/ and we expect to make the bot available through other web, social and search channels as well to maximize awareness for potential plasma donors. Donation should be fairly convenient in most cases: more than 50% of the eligible donor population in the U.S. lives within 15 miles of one of the 500 centers operated by CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance member companies. Recruitment will start in the United States, and then expand to Europe.
The sooner recovered COVID-19 patients donate convalescent plasma, the sooner the alliance may be able to start manufacturing a potential therapy and begin clinical trials. These trials will determine if this therapy could help high-risk COVID-19 patients recover and whether it could protect high-risk individuals from the disease. Time is of the essence: we’re now in an especially important but small window of opportunity with a critical mass of people hitting peak immunity as they recover from COVID-19.
Like many of you, we’ve felt overwhelmed at times by the changes that COVID-19 has brought on society. But even more so, we’ve felt incredibly encouraged seeing people across the planet coming together in truly heroic ways to respond to this pandemic. With this new program, we have a chance to make even more people heroes, starting with those who’ve survived COVID-19. Please take a moment to share this with potential donors, so we can all play our part in making a difference.