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Coronavirus Update: Convalescent Plasma Treatment And Risks Of Reinfection


We have two bits of news now about the coronavirus. The first is from Hong Kong, where researchers have documented a case of reinfection with the virus. And we also have more on the latest therapy for the disease. That is blood plasma from people who've recovered. Joining us to talk about this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hi, Richard.


SHAPIRO: First, let's talk about this patient who has been infected twice. What is the story there?

HARRIS: Well, the case involves a 33-year-old man who got sick with COVID-19 back in March. He had a sore throat, fever, a headache and a cough. It lasted three days, and he tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, long after his symptoms resolved, he took a trip to Europe. When he returned to Hong Kong in July, he was tested at the airport, and they found he was infected again. Scientists at the University of Hong Kong analyzed the virus and determined that this second infection had been caused by a different strain of the virus.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this was not a recurrence of his original infection but a second infection. What are the broader implications of that?

HARRIS: Yeah, it is a little unsettling to think that an infection doesn't protect you indefinitely from a second infection, but that's actually not that surprising. One way to look at this is that his immune system was primed and ready to ward off a second infection in this case and had no symptoms the second time around, which is a sign that the immune system did what it was supposed to do. And remember; this is a single case report. So we have no idea if this was a fluke or if it's something we should expect to see more of in the future.

SHAPIRO: OK - something to watch there. Let's also talk about the blood product that the FDA has just authorized to treat COVID-19. Tell us more about this plasma treatment.

HARRIS: Well, people who have recently had COVID-19 can donate blood plasma, which includes antibodies that target the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of people have been given this material called convalescent plasma as an experimental treatment, and scientists have been collecting that data and analyzing it. But Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine says those are not the usual studies that a drug company would use to get FDA approval for one of their products.

LIISE-ANNE PIROFSKI: It is not data that comes from comparison to a control group, but it is data that it is intriguing and that is bolstered, I think, by a lot of historic evidence as well as a lot of scientific logic that would suggest that it may be helpful.

SHAPIRO: She's speaking in very measured tones there, but President Trump on Sunday boasted that it reduced mortality by 35%, something that we ask the Health and Human Services secretary about in another part of the program. Is that number - 35% - accurate?

HARRIS: That's a misleading number, I think. One of the biggest studies looked at people who got this convalescent plasma infusion within three days and compared them with people who got it after four days and found that mortality was close to 9% in the first group and almost 12% in the second group. You could argue that's a 35% difference, but really, that's not the most honest way to look at that data.

SHAPIRO: So was the FDA justified in authorizing its use on this emergency basis?

HARRIS: Well, there are reasonable indications it could be helpful. One thing she's worried about is once it's widely available, it could be hard to finish the more careful studies that are currently underway, including one that she's part of. People may not want to volunteer for a study if they can get the drug without participating, and the supplies may run low for the studies. So we'll just have to see how that plays out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris with the latest on the coronavirus.

Thanks a lot, Richard.

HARRIS: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.