UCSD looking for San Diegans to participate in COVID-19 plasma trial

Dan Galant makes a plasma donation at the San Diego Blood Bank on May 6.
Dan Galant makes a plasma donation with assistance from donor technician Leya Ramos at the San Diego Blood Bank on May 6. UC San Diego will run a trial testing whether plasma therapy prevents COVID-19 in those at high risk for the disease.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

UC San Diego is looking for volunteers for a trial of an experimental treatment that could temporarily transfer immunity from the blood of COVID-19 survivors to those at risk of getting infected.

The treatment, known as plasma therapy, is already being used in hospitals locally and nationwide to treat COVID-19. But there have not been many large, carefully designed studies that show whether the treatment works.

It’s also unclear whether giving plasma to those likely to be exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could prevent the disease. This study aims to answer that question.

“The principle of this study is not to treat but to prevent,” said Dr. Edward Cachay, an infectious-disease expert who will lead the UCSD trial.

UC San Diego Health is one of many sites that will run the trials, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health through the Department of Defense. Collectively, the trials will enroll 487 volunteers nationwide.

Cachay is hoping for at least 25 participants in San Diego. His team is looking for adults who are at risk of COVID-19 based on their age, underlying health conditions or work in health care. The team wants people who are not infected with the coronavirus and haven’t been infected before. Those who sign up will be screened and tested to make sure they check all those boxes.

Some trial participants will receive plasma from COVID-19 survivors. Plasma is a yellow liquid obtained by removing red and white cells from blood. The idea is to give antibodies, immune proteins found in plasma, that can grip the surface of the virus and block infection.

“It’s been shown to be useful in other infections. I think there’s good rationale,” said Dennis Burton, an immunologist at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla who is not involved in the trial. “A key question will be, how much antibody do you need to provide benefit?”

Plasma therapy may sound like a vaccine, but it’s not. A vaccine would teach the immune system to mount its own response to the virus; plasma therapy transfers antibodies from someone else’s immune system. The antibodies will eventually be cleared from a person’s system, making plasma a temporary, stop-gap measure.

COVID-19 survivor plasma will come from the San Diego Blood Bank, which is still asking San Diegans to donate blood and get a free test for antibodies to the coronavirus. Those with the antibodies can then donate plasma for treatments and trials such as this one.

Other participants will receive plasma collected before the start of the pandemic. This allows physicians to know whether COVID-19 survivor plasma has any protective benefits. To avoid any bias in how researchers run the study, volunteers won’t know if they’re getting survivor plasma and doctors won’t know which plasma they’re administering.

Physicians will monitor all participants for COVID-19 symptoms and regularly test them for the coronavirus. The hope is that those who receive survivor plasma are less likely to test positive or get sick.

Depending on how quickly people sign up for the trial, Cachay says, researchers could have preliminary results by September.

Sign-ups begin Tuesday, July 14.

If you’re interested in participating, contact research coordinator Donna Brusch at or (760) 505-6649. You also can visit ◆