Story at a glance
- As the FDA approves convalescent plasma as a coronavirus treatment, the WHO cautions its use.
- Other scientists concur, saying it lacks scientific evidence.
Following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement on Sunday that it approved the usage of convalescent plasma as an emergency treatment for COVID-19 patients, the World Health Organization (WHO) is cautious about it, calling the evidence of its efficacy “low quality.”
Plasma itself is the liquid part of the blood, which contains antibodies the human body develops to fight pathogens like the coronavirus. Convalescent plasma would be blood sourced from people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection and may be used to treat sick patients by introducing the same antibodies in their own blood.
“At the moment, it’s still very low-quality evidence,” Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO chief scientist, said in a news conference. “So we recommend that convalescent plasma is still an experimental therapy, it should continue to be evaluated in well-designed randomised clinical trials.”
Swaminathan cites inconclusive evidence as the reason for the WHO’s caution. She added that with plasma’s inherent variability, as it is drawn from multiple different sources, it’ll leave us with a product that is not as standardized as antibodies crafted in a lab.
WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward commented on the safety risks associated with convalescent plasma.
“There are a number of side effects,” he said, citing mild fevers to prolonged lung injuries. “For that reason, the clinical trial results are extremely important.”
The FDA said that, “based on scientific evidence available, the FDA concluded this product may be effective in treating COVID-19 and that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”
Other experts have concurred with the WHO, such as Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. In a tweet, Jha wrote that he had “been optimistic about convalescent plasma as therapy. But optimism isn’t science.”
“We need results of adequately powered randomized trials. Issuing an [emergency use authorization] without it would make such trials harder. And erode the credibility of the FDA,” he continued.
President Trump cited the approval as a “historic breakthrough” when making the announcement at the White House on Sunday. Prior to the agency’s authorization, Trump accused the FDA of slowing the approval processes for potential COVID-19 treatments, blaming “political reasons” for the delay.