Iraqi doctor bets on plasma treatment in search of COVID breakthrough

A nurse wearing a protective face mask and gloves shows blood plasma from a person who has recovered from the coronavirus, to be used to help critically-ill patients, at a blood bank in Basra, Iraq.

BASRA, Iraq: In a hospital ward in Iraq, doctor Ali Salam Abdullah and a smiling patient hold up a large blood bag full of the yellow liquid that he hopes will help turn the corner in cutting the country’s coronavirus death rate.

The liquid is plasma from a recently recovered patient, believed to be rich in virus antibodies and which immunologist Abdullah and his team in the southern city of Basra have been using to treat critical COVID-19 cases since April.

He now hopes to get health ministry support to use plasma as a generalised treatment before patients’ conditions become life-threatening, but he says he is facing a shortage of donors.

“Among all recovered patients, only three per cent (of eligible donors) volunteer,” he said. “… If half of those recovered patients came, we would have enough (plasma) to treat patients in Basra until the end of the year.”

While the effectiveness of plasma as a coronavirus treatment remains unclear, the health ministry is allowing it to be gathered at blood banks and used under certain conditions, while the global pharma industry is working to develop antibody-based therapies.

Abdullah is convinced that plasma helps patients’ weakened immune systems fight the virus and, to compensate for the shortage of donors, is using a plasma exchange machine that injects replacement fluids to increase the yield per patient from the standard 400ml to up to 3000ml.

Once he has enough volunteers he says he will revert to standard extraction levels but for the time being, and as Iraq’s COVID epidemic continues to spread, Abdullah is sticking to the higher-yield procedure.

He is hopeful his methods will eventually be vetted and adopted abroad.

“I encourage people to come and donate. But most people are afraid, I don’t know why,” said donor Basim Jassem, before posing for pictures with his super-sized plasma bag.

“They take it from (us) and replace it with a replacement fluid. There is nothing special about it.”

Iraq’s COVID death toll stands at just over 1,250, with more than 34,500 people infected, according to health ministry figures.

A ministry spokesman could not be reached immediately for comment on this article.

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