Plasma treatment involves injecting antibody-rich plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients into those who are still infected. Image Credit: NICVD

Islamabad: With coronavirus vaccine at least 12-18 months away and sharp rise in cases, Pakistan is beginning clinical trials of a potentially promising therapy to treat patients infected with Covid-19.

Pakistan’s Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) has approved convalescent plasma (CP) treatment for patients with serious Covid-19 infections “after meeting set standards of quality and safety” DRAP chief executive officer Asim Rauf told Gulf News.

WPK  DRAP - Asim Rauf-1586958278000
Dr Asim Rauf

On Tuesday, Pakistan’s National Institute of Blood Diseases and Bone Marrow Transplantation (NIBD) said that it has received official approval to conduct clinical trials for passive immunisation. NIBD has also secured research grant from pharmaceutical company, Hilton Pharma, and other philanthropists. NIBD’s chairman and hematologist Dr Tahir Shamsi was one of the first to suggest the introduction of plasma therapy to Pakistan government.

NIBD in Karachi is collaborating with University of Health Sciences (Lahore), Liaquat University of Medical & Health Science (Jamshoro) and Sindh Blood Transfusion Authority, to introduce plasma-based treatments in Pakistan. LUMS Medical University in Lahore and Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) in Karachi are also aggressively pursuing plasma therapy under the supervision of doctors and scientists.

How plasma therapy works?

The treatment involves injecting antibody-rich plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients into those who are still infected. Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, are proteins in blood that fight specific bacteria and viruses. The donor antibodies temporarily help a sick person fight infection effectively.

Pakistan contributing to global efforts to fight Covid-19

Another team of Pakistani researchers from DUHS are confident that they are close to one of the first approved plasma-derived treatment. The DUHS research team, led by Dr Shaukat Ali, has prepared intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) with plasma obtained from recovered patients. “This way of treatment is safe, low risk and highly effective against coronavirus,” according to an official statement. “Through this method, immunoglobulin is prepared after separation of antibodies found in the blood of a recovered patient.”

The DUHS researchers claim that what they have achieved is “the first global report of isolation, formulation and safety demonstration of immunoglobulin purified from recovered Covid-19 patients.” The team is now awaiting clinical trials.

Pakistani scientists say that their achievement is “a major step towards international efforts” to control and combat Covid-19. DUHS Vice Chancellor Muhammad Saeed Quraishy called it a significant “breakthrough” and termed it a “ray of hope in this time of crisis”.

The US Food and Drug Administration has also allowed the use of plasma on Covid-19 patients in an emergency situation. Trials for the plasma treatment are underway in the US, UK, China, France and Germany.

How effective is plasma therapy?

Dr Faheem Younus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland UCH, has termed plasma therapy “one of the best treatment options available today” in the absence of vaccine and scarce resources such as test kits, masks and ventilators. However, he described plasma, in his latest article, as a “stopgap measure against the pandemic before we get to an effective vaccine.”

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that five critically ill patients with Covid-19 in Shenzen, China, improved after receiving CP transfusions. Doctors and researchers, however, call for further studies and robust clinical trials to determine its effectiveness. The treatment has been effectively used in other epidemics such as SARS, MERS, and H1N1. The concept of the therapy is not new. Doctors have used similar techniques since at least the 1890s.