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UW Hospital to treat COVID-19 patients with survivor blood starting next week
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UW Hospital to treat COVID-19 patients with survivor blood starting next week

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series

By early next week, proteins from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 could be helping patients at UW Hospital fight their infections.

Using a technique more than a century old, doctors plan to transfuse antibodies from the plasma of people who fought off the new coronavirus into patients struggling with serious complications.

“We know that antibody has neutralized the virus in one person,” said Dr. William Hartman, a UW Health anesthesiologist heading up the effort at UW Hospital, which is part of a national study. “We assume that the antibody will neutralize the virus in another person. It’s an extra boost to help fight off the infection.”

The concept, called convalescent plasma, dates to at least 1900, when it was used to treat diphtheria, Hartman said. Antibodies from recovered patients have also been used through the years to fight influenza, Ebola and other coronaviruses known as SARS and MERS.

With no approved treatment for COVID-19 and more than 75,000 deaths around the world, including more than 11,000 in the U.S., the unproven approach offers some hope against the new coronavirus.

Wisconsin on Tuesday reported 2,578 cases of COVID-19, including 745 hospitalizations and 92 deaths. Dane County reported 303 cases, including 11 deaths.

UW Hospital last week joined the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, started about a month ago by Johns Hopkins University, Mayo Clinic and other institutions. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration approved a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins, through which UW Hospital’s treatment program will operate, Hartman said.

COVID-19 cases and deaths

Plasma donors must have had COVID-19 infections confirmed by a test and be symptom-free for 14 days, he said. If they have been without symptoms for at least 28 days, they can donate plasma as long as they meet general screening criteria by the American Red Cross. If it has been less than 28 days, they first must be retested to be sure they are negative for COVID-19.

Hartman has a list of about 45 people, mostly from Dane County, who contacted the national project or UW Hospital to indicate they could be donors. Potential donors can also call 608-262-8300 or 833-306-0681 (toll-free), or email

The first donor is expected to have plasma collected at the Red Cross late this week, with the first possible treatment delivered early next week, Hartman said.

Hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who have serious disease or are in critical care and likely on ventilators qualify to be treated, he said. The effort aims to treat as many patients as possible and study the safety and effectiveness of the therapy.

Though patients who have recovered from COVID-19 are assumed to have antibodies, the study won’t test their plasma to determine the volume.

“We don’t have a very good test right now to determine antibody or antibody (amount),” Hartman said. “The assumption is that their plasma will have plenty of antibody and hopefully be useful to someone who is struggling.”

Madison-based Exact Sciences is providing the COVID-19 tests required for potential donors, and the local Red Cross will process and deliver the plasma donations to UW Hospital.

Putting together the effort quickly after UW Hospital became part of the national project has been a big effort, Hartman said.

“We’ve been working for about a week, since we joined, around the clock,” he said.

Photos: A look at how COVID-19 is affecting Wisconsin