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Episode 25: Therapies in the Works



Things are getting a little scary out there. The number of new coronavirus cases is on the rise. Hospital beds are filling up across the country. Deaths are climbing. Sobering stuff. 

As we wait for the approval of vaccines, development and testing of better treatments is crucial. Effective therapies don’t get as much attention, but they are just as important in making this disease less deadly. This is what we’re talking about in the latest episode of Transmission.

Dr. Rebecca Haley at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle can track all of the COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. based on demand for convalescent plasma.

This is plasma from the blood of someone who survived COVID-19. It contains antibodies. Think of it as a stranger’s army rushing in to help you fight the disease. Haley’s lab sends it out to hospitals all over the country.

“I was on call this morning, the upper Midwest is on fire. And so the demand is high. Our demand was high at one time. It's lower now. So we send to share centers,” Haley explains.

If the Northwest heats up again, then we can tap plasma from share centers in other states. 

“So there's this give and take throughout the country so that everyone can be appropriately served,” Haley says.       

Convalescent plasma was one of the first things we threw at this virus. Since those early days, this therapy has been honed and refined. What sets this new wave of COVID-19 cases apart from the wave we went through in the spring is that doctors and nurses and hospitals are learning better ways to treat this disease. 

Yes, many people are still dying, but two recent studies (this one and this one) show the death rate has fallen from about 25 percent to below 10 percent. Still not great, but better than it was at the beginning. It's a sliver of a silver lining in all of this horribleness.

Meanwhile, we are all keeping an eye on the progress vaccines are making. But vaccines aren’t the only things that will save us. 

“And we also understand that not everybody will be able to or want to get a vaccine,” says Dr. Rachel Bender Ignacio with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The Food and Drug Administration has announced that they will approve a vaccine that has 50 percent efficacy. 

“That means that in the case of an imperfect vaccine, we're preventing every one out of two people from being infected. But we still need treatments for people who do get infected and for those who aren’t able to get the vaccine or those around them not able to get the vaccine,” Bender Ignacio says.

Even long after vaccines arrive, it will take a while to distribute them. Depending on how effective they are, people will still likely be getting sick from COVID-19. People will still be dying. 

“We need urgent answers and we need to help people, because, I have watched patients not survive COVID. Too many of them, both personally and just locally here in Seattle. We need to change course,” Bender Ignacio says, with determination in her voice.

Part of changing course is developing effective therapies. Listen to the full epsiode above. 

News Transmission
Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.