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Before Vaccines, Doctors ‘Borrowed’ Antibodies from Recovered Patients to Save Lives

March 30, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Doctors first tried injecting patients with blood plasma in the early 1900s. The method has been used against diphtheria, the Spanish Flu, the measles and Ebola.

In 1934, a doctor at a private boy’s school in Pennsylvania tried a unique method to stave off a potentially deadly measles outbreak. Dr. J. Roswell Gallagher extracted blood serum from a student who had recently recovered from a serious measles infection and began injecting the plasma into 62 other boys who were at high risk of catching the disease.


Korean War Troops Were Saved by Plasma Treatments

A US Army chaplain prays while wounded soldiers get dressings and plasma at a medical station on the war front, Korea, August 10, 1950.

By the 1940s and 1950s, antibiotics and vaccines began to replace the use of convalescent plasma for treating many infectious disease outbreaks, but the old-fashioned method came in handy yet again during the Korean War when thousands of United Nations troops were stricken with something called Korean hemorrhagic fever, also known as Hantavirus. With no other treatment available, field doctors transfused convalescent plasma to sickened patients and saved untold numbers of lives.

Greene says that convalescent plasma was even deployed against 21st century outbreaks of MERS, SARS and Ebola, all novel viruses that spread through communities with no natural immunity, no vaccine and no effective antiviral treatment. Today, the best treatment for Ebola is still a pair of “monoclonal antibodies,” individual antibodies isolated from convalescent plasma and then cloned artificially in a lab.

READ MORE: The Most Harrowing Battle of the Korean War

Fighting COVID-19 With Convalescent Plasma

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, China on February 18, 2020.

One of the best-known modern uses of convalescent plasma is for the production of antivenom to treat deadly snake bites. Antivenom is made by injecting small amounts of snake venom into horses and allowing the horse’s immune system to produce antibodies that neutralize the poison. Those equine antibodies are isolated, purified and distributed to hospitals as antivenom.

In March 2020, doctors at Johns Hopkins University began testing convalescent plasma as a promising stop-gap treatment for COVID-19 while the search continued for a permanent vaccine. The advantage of convalescent plasma is that it can be drawn from recovered patients using the same …read more


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