8 Apr 2020

Latest COVID-19 research: blood plasma therapy, face masks and the UK’s critically ill patients

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, scientists are rushing to carry out and publish research which will help us understand how the virus works, and how the disease it causes can be treated.

Each week, Channel 4 News will provide a summary of key research papers, studies or developments from the world of COVID-19 science.

Study on blood plasma therapy in COVID-19 patients (published 06/04/2020)

On Monday a study was published which looked at treatment of severe COVID-19 patients with plasma – the majority component of blood, and which can carry crucial antibodies – from people who have already recovered from the disease.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the severely ill patients treated with the “convalescent plasma” had alleviated symptoms within three days and that the virus was no longer detected in their blood after seven days.

The authors said the treatment could be a “promising rescue option for severe COVID-19”, but noted that the research was only carried out with 10 patients, however. They said that a randomised trial – the gold standard for this category of clinical research – was needed to confirm the findings.

The idea behind the research is that patients who have recovered from the virus will be producing important neutralising antibodies in their plasma, which could then be beneficial if given to ill patients not yet producing a similar immune response.

In comments to the Science Media Centre, Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, President of the British Pharmacological Society, who was not an author on the study, noted caution on the findings due to the small study size and the fact that the ill patients were also receiving other therapies which could explain the results.

Professor Pirmohmed said: “Even if shown to work, scalability to treat large numbers of patients may become an issue. As the authors indicate, there is a need for robustly designed randomised controlled trials to show efficacy of convalescent plasma.”

Study reviewing evidence of face mask effectiveness against SARS-COV-2 (published 06/04/2020)

On 6 April a study was published by scientists at the University of East Anglia which reviewed all the existing evidence on the effectiveness of using face masks to protect against SARS-COV-2 in everyday life.

The study findings, which looked at using face masks “in community settings” as opposed to in medical environments, and were published before they’d been peer reviewed, said: “The evidence is not sufficiently strong to support widespread use of face masks as a protective measure against COVID-19.”

This echoed previous advice by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that outside of medical settings face masks are only needed when looking after someone with COVID-19.

The academic review looked at 31 pre-existing studies. It found that only in some of the studies was a slight decrease in infection rate brought about by wearing face masks.

From some of the studies reviewed, it found that in households where one person has confirmed COVID-19, face masks only gave a small protective effect to the other household members if worn by everyone, the infected person included. The protective effect was “very small” if only worn by the infected person, or only by the others who were well.

Commenting on the study findings, Dr Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist from the Royal Holloway, University of London, who wasn’t one of the authors, said: “This study therefore supports the importance of prioritising limited stocks for healthcare staff and other key workers in the high-risk settings identified by the study as more likely to benefit from mask use.”

The study authors said more research is needed to find when wearing face masks in everyday settings is needed and most effective.

Latest audit of critically ill UK patients (published 04/04/2020)

On Saturday the latest audit of COVID-19 cases admitted to Intensive Care Units (ICU) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was published by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC).

Of 2249 patients, the audit found 69 percent were still in critical care while 15 percent had been discharged. The audit found 15 percent of patients had died.

Of the total, the audit found that the median age of patients was 61. 73 percent were male and 23 percent were female.

Of 2046 of patients, nearly 93 percent were able to live without medical assistance prior to admission into ICU with COVID-19.

Of 388 patients who required treatment with a ventilator, the audit found that a third survived.

Commenting on the data to the Science Media Centre, Duncan Young, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at University of Oxford, said: “The relative ineffectiveness of artificial ventilation might suggest that COVID-19 causes a particularly treatment-resistant form of pneumonitis.  It is also possible that in some patients COVID-19 is causing multi-organ failure of which the respiratory failure is the presenting problem but may not always be the cause of death – but there are no data on this yet.”

Last week’s update can be found here: https://www.channel4.com/news/thelatestcovid-19sciencedevelopments