Blood donated by patients who have recovered from Covid-19 will imminently be used as part of efforts to treat victims of the disease in NHS hospitals, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.
Senior officials said the health service will start giving hospital patients plasma from those who have recovered from coronavirus, “in the very near future”, after the move was approved by the UK’s medicines watchdog.
The disclosure comes days after the US Food and Drug Administration approved a similar move in America, where doctors can now carry out “convalescent plasma” transfusions for patients with serious infections.
The approach, which was used in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, relies on the fact that the blood of patients who have recovered contains antibodies which can fight the virus.
Ministers are currently racing to obtain 3.5 million testing kits which would establish whether individual patients contain antibodies to coronavirus.
Plans to adopt the technique in NHS hospitals are being drawn up by the health service’s Blood and Transplant arm, and Public Health England.
Dr Gail Muflin, NHS Blood and Transplant’s medical director and a consultant haemotologist, said the UK planned to start “providing plasma from recovered people to hospitals as treatment” for Covid-19 “in the very near future.”
The move was discussed in a video call of senior officials on Thursday. Experts had called for Britain to begin using the treatment following reports on trials in China last month.
Speaking in February Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist from Warwick Medical School said: “We should definitely be looking at the using convalescent plasma from recovered patients’ in the UK.”
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said: “We have been working with the National Blood Service in anticipation of this issue, and in early March, we agreed to this procedure.
“This will mean that patients who are recovering from COVID-19 can receive plasma from another patient who has recovered.”
Last week the FDA said: “It is possible that convalescent plasma that contains antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) might be effective against the infection … Although promising, convalescent plasma has not been shown to be effective in every disease studied.”
The FDA said it would give approval to individual trials of the treatment before coming to a decision about “routinely administering convalescent plasma to patients with Covid-19”.
Given the “public health emergency ” it also said that doctors could apply to use plasma to treat patients with “serious or immediately life-threatening Covid-19 infections.
Vaccines for Covid-19 are unlikely to be available until the end of the year at the earliest. During the Spanish flu pandemic doctors used the blood serum from recovered flu patients to treat the sick.
In many cases the patients recovered. Plasma and serum are clear fluid portions of blood, and both contain antibodies, but plasma also contains some other helpful proteins lacking in serum.
More recently, plasma transfusion was used experimentally to treat small numbers of people during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002 and 2003.
Last week it emerged that scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, were waiting for FDA approval to start a human trial to see if the plasma of people who have already fought off the disease can help boost the immune system.
“Giving serum from newly recovered patients is a Stone Age approach, but historically it has worked,” said Dr Jeffrey Henderson, Associate Professor of Medicine and Molecular Microbiology at Washington University.
“This is how we used to prevent and treat viral infections like measles, mumps, polio and influenza, but once vaccines were developed, the technique understandably fell out of favour and many people forgot about it.
“Until we have specific drugs and vaccines for Covid-19, this approach could save lives.”
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, confirmed that the state’s health department was preparing to use such a treatment.
Officials suggested that they were likely to recruit donors from the New York City suburb where the state’s outbreak began.
Mr Cuomo said: “We think it shows promise, and we’re going to be starting that this week.” Meanwhile, the NHS has called for people to keep donating blood to the health service despite the current restrictions on movement in the UK.
“Giving blood and platelets is essential to the NHS and vulnerable patients,” the health service said in a statement. “Please keep donating.”
It added: “We have followed government guidelines to put special safety measures in place for social distancing. “Please keep your appointment if you can, or make a new one for the future.
Coming to give blood is considered essential travel for the NHS.
“You will not get a coronavirus test by coming to give blood because there is no evidence of transmission through blood donation.”