The blood plasma of a recovered coronavirus patient has made significant strides in acting as a temporary Band-Aid to quell the virus in newly infected patients. On July 30, President Donald Trump held a roundtable discussion urging Americans with high levels of coronavirus antibodies to volunteer as soon as they can and seek local plasma donation centers to help others inflicted heal and vastly reduce mortality. Over 50,000 plasma transfusions have been given in the US to date. “Together we will defeat the virus; we will defeat the invisible enemy,” declared the president. The surgeon general also called upon young people to donate. “The seniors are showing us up,” Jerome Adams noted. “We need everyone to do their part, because we are in this together.” To combat the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci called on large-scale donations of plasma. “In the hundreds of thousands,” would be necessary, he stated.
The team at COVID Plasma Initiative (CPI), a national non-profit initiative, has been running at full steam ever since their inception. In a tremendous display of a kiddush Hashem, the frum group of unsuspecting partners united as the world began to grapple with the gravity of the pandemic. The Orthodox Jewish community often rises to serve as a role model when faced with tragedy, and the founders were eager to make a difference. To this end, partners, including the Agudath Israel of America, Chevra Hatzalah of Kiryas Yoel, Catskills Hatzalah, and Refuah Health Center, that have risen to help provide logistics at a slew of antibody testing events, joined New York Blood Center this past Tuesday, August 4, at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, for an unprecedented plasma drive.
The South Fallsburg convalescent plasma drive had a notable visit from the highest echelons of Washington DC: Col. Sean O’Neil, PhD, MBA, director of plasma-derived therapeutics for the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services – Operation Warp Speed. O’Neil has pushed off retirement from the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine to aid the nation in using hyperimmune globulin (HiG), the concentrated antibodies sought after in the plasma donation program, as a solution to this virus plaguing the nation. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed is a public-private partnership, aimed at facilitating and accelerating the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics for mass production of multiple vaccines in the hope that one prevails as safe and effective. The $10-billion budget allotted by Congress, which allows for the unparalleled production of multiple potential cures, is costly, but will ultimately bring a cure more quickly, saving more lives. For O’Neil, this assignment is as critical as any deployment in defending the nation; here the threat is COVID-19.
Mordechai Serle, CPI co-founder and Kew Gardens Hills native, detailed the grass-root efforts to the Queens Jewish Link. “We have undertaken the initiative with the intent to be a model for other communities,” explained Serle, while providing insight on those who took notice of CPI’s energies. “The federal government has come and asked our advice regarding our wild success – beyond anyone’s expectations.” Initially, there was little hope in everyday citizens desiring to donate their plasma. “Everyone just thought that a couple of hundred patients would get plasma over the course of this pandemic. Instead, close to 60,000 Americans have gotten plasma only because of the Jewish community’s efforts,” exclaimed Serle.
In the days prior to the drive, enthusiastic donors registered – some for their second round of donations – eager for the opportunity to help someone suffering from the virus. The concept of the COVID Plasma Initiative was formulated around giving everyone the chance to save a life, and this sacred duty follows through on each undertaking. As Tropical Storm Isaias first reared its nasty head upon the tri-state region, the heroic patrons of plasma would not let up. The donors from all walks of Orthodox Jewry bore the blustery winds and ascended upon the revamped Borscht Belt destination in the Catskills.
In the thick of the contagion, CPI’s website, covidplasmasavealife.com, became a national symbol for hope, as its early April story of initiation and tireless continued work as a network connecting patients and their families, plasma donors, and doctors with hospitals spread. Convalescent COVID-19 plasma transfusions were quickly a discussion on the highest ranks of government, hoping to make its liquid gold, as the term has been coined, accessible to as many coronavirus patients as possible.
The unity amongst co-founders Serle, Abba Swiatycki, and Chaim Lebovits knows no bounds, and although most of their formative conversations were via constant phone calls, their efforts have changed the face of the virus. Alongside New York Blood Center, American gems, including Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital and the acclaimed Mayo Clinic, joined forces. Suddenly, virtually nonexistent supplies of the lifesaving antibody-rich plasma became a thing of the past, as new donors across the country gave.
“We look forward to other communities following our lead and copying our techniques, volunteerism, and generosity,” Serle said. The newfound program firmly believes in unity in this endeavor. “It rests upon our resilient population coming together to lead America out of this pandemic with a realistic treatment that keeps people from having their COVID progressing into serious illness and potentially keeping them out of the hospital altogether,” added Serle.
Serle wrapped up his thoughts on the progress quite poignantly. “The Jewish community has served as disruptors, bringing the realistic first choice of treatment for COVID patients to the forefront. We proved that an experimental treatment everybody said would be logistically impossible would not simply remain as a promising idea in a medical journal.”
By Shabsie Saphirstein