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The FDA just approved Columbia’s Covid-19 plasma therapy study, backed by Amazon

Dr. Kong Yuefeng, a recovered COVID-19 patient who has passed his 14-day quarantine, donates plasma in the city’s blood center in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just green-lit a clinical trial at Columbia University to determine whether the plasma collected from Covid-19 survivors can effectively protect health care workers on the frontlines and alleviate symptoms in those who are severely ill. 

The study is funded by $2.5 million from Amazon

Using convalescent plasma — a component of blood — as a treatment is a decades-old idea, and has been used to treat other diseases like influenza and measles. When a patient recovers from a disease, they produce antibodies to fight the presence of the antigen that caused the disease, and those proteins will remain in the blood for a few months.

The hope is that plasma from recovered coronavirus patients can be transfused into severely ill patients, helping them recover more quickly. It could also help health care workers develop some immunity. It’s not an alternative to a vaccine, but researchers believe that the approach has potential.

The trials will be led by epidemiologist Dr. Ian Lipkin, MD, a professor at the Columbia Mailman School — and one of the key advisors behind the movie “Contagion” —  in collaboration with the Center for Infection and Immunity, the school of public health at Columbia University, Columbia’s Irving Medical Center and the New York Blood Center. 

Columbia isn’t the first research site to test plasma, but New York could be an ideal site given the number of people in the area have been exposed to the virus. New York was one of the early hotspots for Covid-19, and has now recorded more than 145,000 confirmed cases. 

Throughout the course of the trial, 450 people — severely ill patients, close contacts of those patients and health care workers — will receive either convalescent plasma or a placebo.

“We appreciate the FDA’s approval of this trial, which has the potential to help us protect courageous frontline healthcare workers and first responders during this crisis,” says Lipkin in a statement.

“Plasma therapy is a long-established approach, developed by Paul Ehrlich and Emil von Behring for treatment of diphtheria and recognized in 1901 by the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Just as Covid-19 has taken us back to classic methods for outbreak containment like isolation, through a novel use we are rediscovering the lifesaving potential of a classic strategy like plasma therapy,” he continued. 

Amazon’s cloud and health care teams have moved to support various projects that seem promising to test and treat for Covid-19. Among other things, Amazon Web Services has donated $20 million to support the development of diagnostic solutions. 

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