Regional blood bank Vitalant on Monday began testing all blood donations for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Donors will be able to see positive or negative test results, about two weeks after completing successful blood donations, by logging into private online donor accounts. Vitalant, the largest U.S. independent nonprofit blood collector, is one of the first national blood banks to do this for all donations across 40 states where it serves hospitals, including more than 35 in the Inland Northwest.
The antibody test, authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will indicate if donors’ immune systems have produced antibodies to the virus, regardless of whether they showed symptoms. At least through the summer, it will be part of a full panel of tests that Vitalant does.
Donors aren’t charged for the tests, and a positive result doesn’t mean they are immune, the organization said. Donors who do test positive could become part of helping fight the disease by later donating convalescent plasma, which is being used to help treat some COVID-19 patients.
“While a positive antibody test does not mean that someone is immune to COVID-19, it does mean that they may be eligible to donate convalescent plasma in the future and help people with the disease,” said Cliff Numark, Vitalant’s chief of marketing.
“Convalescent plasma can be given directly to patients currently battling COVID-19 to help boost their ability to fight their illness.”
Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of a person’s blood. For someone who has had COVID-19 and recovers, that means their plasma contains the antibodies developed when fighting off the virus.
The FDA hasn’t approved convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment, but the agency is allowing the transfusion of convalescent plasma as an investigational product.
The Mayo Clinic is leading a large clinical trial, which hospitals can opt into nationally, to study the use of convalescent plasma as a way to treat patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
The clinical trial will help determine how effective plasma is for treating COVID-19. All four Spokane-area hospitals are participating in the trial and able to treat patients with plasma.
In April, Vitalant began collecting and distributing convalescent plasma. Under FDA rules, Vitalant can collect it from a symptom-free person if the individual had tested positive for the disease or positive for the antibodies.
Vitalant has created a questionnaire that helps detail a list of requirements for a donor. A person with COVID-19 must be recovered and without symptoms for at least two weeks before donating.
It’s important that people don’t come in to make a blood donation if they’re sick, Numark said.
Costs for the antibody testing are subsidized in part by the Blood Center Foundation of the Inland Northwest and the Bonfils Blood Center Donor Advised Fund.
The nonprofit decided to take this step to include antibody tests for all complete blood donations to help Vitalant and the medical community expand its knowledge base, Numark said. The Vitalant Research Institute also is leading several research initiatives related to SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
“We need to understand if the plasma we’re collecting does in fact have the antibodies in it,” he said. “We had to implement the test in order to effectively make that happen.
“Because we want to ensure we can collect as much as we can, we actually are opening this up to all blood donations so we can identify the antibodies that may be in the blood donation, and then that person can subsequently give convalescent plasma.
“People may not have had symptoms, and the antibodies test would then enable them to see if they did in fact have the coronavirus.”
Vitalant, in a news release, said it’s possible the broad use of antibody tests and clinical follow-up will provide the medical community with more information on whether a person who has recovered from COVID-19 is at a lower risk of infection again.
“There is still so much we don’t know about this disease, including whether having the antibodies will provide some lower risk of infection going forward, and if so, for how long,” Numark said. “We want to understand that.”
Donations of all blood types are critically needed, with a high need for type O, A-negative and B-negative red blood cells. People can make appointments by calling (877) 258-4825 or going online to vitalant.org.
Platelets are always needed by patients for cancer treatments, surgeries and emergencies.
“The most important thing folks should know is that there is a critical blood shortage,” Numark said. “We need people to show up today to donate blood.”
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