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Milwaukee-based Versiti, Inc. will soon begin collecting plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to potentially treat those with the virus.

As researchers race to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, blood centers across the country are beginning to collect plasma for the investigational therapy, which is expected to be used with patients most severely affected by the virus.

Versiti is receiving donations across its network, which includes the BloodCenter of Wisconsin and blood centers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The blood centers are working with partner hospitals in each of those states to identify recovered COVID patients. They must meet a set of guidelines, including having proof of a positive lab test result and then a negative test result 14 days after recovering from symptoms.

“It’s a very collaborative effort with our hospital partners who will be working to identify and verify the donors,” said Dan Waxman, senior medical director for Versiti.

Dr. Thomas Abshire, chief medical officer for Versiti, said the pool of potential donors will grow in the next few weeks, as more people are tested and recover from the virus.

The plasma treatment, which is approved by the FDA as an Emergency Investigational New Drug, would transfer the antibodies that the recovered patient created into critically ill patients. It’s unknown at this point how many plasma infusions a patient would require.

Plasma infusion therapies have previously been used to treat the Spanish flu in 1918 and more recently to treat the Ebola virus, Abshire said. But its effectiveness to treat COVID-19 is unknown at this point, he said.

“Researchers are working on drug treatments and working on a vaccine, but that’s not ready now,” Abshire said. “But this is something that’s ready now. And we believe it’s an advantage for Versiti to be one of the leaders on this.”

Versiti expects to begin the collection program early this month. The donated plasma will be provided directly to Versiti’s partnering hospitals. The process is the same as other plasma donations, and will be performed using an apheresis machine, which separates the blood components.

“Many of our hospital partners have already requested the donations,” Waxman said. “They are anxious to begin the program.”

Versiti is working with a team from Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin on a research study related to plasma infusion, which includes a clinical trial component with recovered coronavirus patients.

“This is a very important joint effort that we are undertaking which will benefit every hospital system in the state of Wisconsin and beyond,” said Gilbert White, Versiti executive vice president for research and chief science officer and a professor at MCW. “This research will not only help patients now, but inform us for future interventions.”