A new programme is underway as part of New Zealand’s fight against Covid-19.
The New Zealand Blood Service is overseeing the project which involves taking plasma from patients who have had the virus and therefore developed antibodies.
The first-ever Convalescent Plasma programme was set up at pace, taking just six weeks through the co-operation of a range of agencies including Medsafe, the Ministry of Health and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).
“This is the first infection in New Zealand that's taken hold that we really need to do something about immediately,” says Blood Transfusion specialist, Dr Richard Charlewood. “I think it is an important tool to have available because there is so little else out there.”
Currently, existing blood donors who’ve had the virus are being asked if they would like to donate plasma. There is no compulsion to do so, participation is voluntary.
Thirty-four-year-old Jean-Pierre van Heerden is one of just five people in New Zealand to have donated his plasma.
He says he wants to help others having experienced first-hand the horrors of Covid-19 and ending up in an isolation ward at Auckland Hospital.
“The breathing, the body pain, the fever, the coughing - it’s not a good feeling and mentally it sort of messes with you,” Mr van Heerden says. “I don't like to see people suffer. It's horrible and if I can help them, why not?”
Convalescent Transfusion programmes have operated overseas for years with mixed results.
But recent early, small-scale Covid-19 studies in China are showing to be effective. The focus here is now on the larger studies that follow.
The Blood Service is aiming to collect enough plasma for 10 patient doses.
Low case numbers mean the plasma is not currently needed. It will instead be stored at -30 degrees and used if a second wave of Covid-19 occurs.
“We're not giving this to people who have a minor illness,” Dr Charlewood says. “We're giving this to the people who are really battling for their lives and who are about to be put on ventilators.”
If the need arises, the plasma will be made available to future patients.