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What is plasma? How to donate convalescent plasma for coronavirus patients

Here's how plasma donation differs from giving blood and what donors need to know about eligibility.
George Tzagournis donates his plasma on April 15 in Columbus, Ohio, after recovering from COVID-19.
George Tzagournis donates his plasma on April 15 in Columbus, Ohio, after recovering from COVID-19.Courtesy Rodney Wilson/American Red Cross
/ Source: TODAY

Plasma is precious for people sick with COVID-19.

The liquid portion of blood taken from survivors of the disease may be rich in antibodies that doctors hope can speed up recovery for the sickest patients.

That’s why George Tzagournis, a dentist in Columbus, Ohio, wanted to donate his convalescent plasma after he got better from a novel coronavirus infection in March — an illness he described as “the worst two weeks of my life.”

He was especially moved by the plight of an ailing 17-year-old COVID-19 patient in the area whose family was urging others to donate plasma.

“What better way to combat this virus than to actually do something that’s pretty easy,” Tzagournis, 49, told TODAY.

“Having three kids who are college age, I would hope that someone else would do the same thing for us if we were in need… it was a no-brainer.”

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The American Red Cross has produced 200 units of convalescent plasma donated by almost 150 eligible donors so far, said Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of the organization. The goal is to send out more than 1,000 units to hospitals, which would require 500-600 donors.

The effort is a top priority for the Red Cross, but it’s struggling to keep up, she noted.

“Unfortunately, the demand is far exceeding the supply, even though many people in our organization are working around the clock on this endeavor,” Young said.

“It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to qualify each of these donors.”

The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project — created by a group of doctors and scientists from 57 institutions in 46 states — has more information for potential donors, patients and health care providers.

Here’s how the American Red Cross is handling the donation process:

Who is eligible to donate?

Convalescent plasma donors have to confirm they had COVID-19 and have fully recovered. That means having documentation of a positive test, which can be a challenge since access to testing has been sporadic.

They also need to either be 14 days from their last symptoms and have a negative COVID-19 test, or 28 days from their last symptoms — no negative test required.

The Red Cross is not testing donors for COVID-19 antibodies at this time, but the organization is working to implement such a test in the future for donors who need it to confirm eligibility.

Tzagournis’ last symptoms were on March 27 and he donated his plasma on April 15 at a Red Cross center. He had to bring proof of both a positive and a negative test.

Once potential convalescent plasma donors have been vetted, they are preferentially scheduled for a collection as quickly as possible because of the strong need right now, Young noted.

What is convalescent plasma?

It’s the liquid portion of blood — which is 92% water but also contains vital proteins such as albumin, gamma globulin and anti-hemophilic factor — obtained from a person who has fully recovered from COVID-19.

It contains antibodies that may boost a person's ability to fight the disease.

What is it like to donate plasma?

The main difference from regular blood donation is the time required. It takes about 10 minutes to give whole blood, but up to two hours to collect plasma, which is done using a technology called apheresis.

Blood drawn from an arm is sent through a machine that spins it to separate the components. The plasma portion then collects in a bag, while the red cells and platelets are returned to the donor.

“You just sit there and watch TV and squeeze a ball,” Tzagournis said about his experience. He described his plasma as “yellowish” and “pretty cool.” He felt normal after the collection, he said.

“I’m super glad and I can’t wait to do it again,” Tzagournis noted. “I hope it cures a person. I also hope (doctors) learn from it.”

Do donors ever know who the plasma goes to?

No. “This is not the type of donation where you can target your donation for a particular recipient. One donates and it goes to a person in need based on blood compatibility,” Young said.

The plasma is distributed directly to hospitals, which add it to their blood banks and issue it to a patient in need.

The Red Cross is also collecting plasma from regular donors, as it always does, because it can prevent shock and help with blood clotting in patients who experience excessive bleeding. The organization has appealed for people to donate blood in general in recent weeks because of shortages, and the effort has paid off.

“Thanks to the tremendous response of our country, our blood supply right now is stable. We continue to be vigilant about that,” Young said.