On Sunday afternoon, Donald Trump introduced his latest would-be miracle cure for the COVID-19 pandemic, yet again dodging the basic needs of testing, tracking, and isolating local outbreaks (things that require work) in favor of a newly called out One Weird Trick that will make everything fine again without doing that work.
This time around it's not an anti-malaria medication or an extract from a highly toxic plant brought to us by the My Pillow guy, but blood plasma. Now, convalescent plasma treatments may indeed be of some use in COVID-19 patients—but there's a big, big catch.
While the Trump White House wants, for purely political reasons, to highlight the use of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients as a "major therapeutic breakthrough," that treatment regimen is already in fairly widespread use. Nearly 100,000 COVID-19 patients have been treated with convalescent plasma, made from the blood of donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and have therefore developed an antibody response to the virus—in theory, resulting in an elevated immune response in the new patient.
Despite its use on 100,000 COVID-19 patients, though, there's still no solid medical evidence that it actually works. While a Mayo Clinic study shows what may be a small but statistically significant difference in survival rates for patients who get plasma earlier in the course of their disease, rather than later, even that may turn out to be an artifact of COVID-19 rates improving over the duration of the study due to other treatments.
It's the murkiness in teasing out, even after this fairly widespread use, whether any effect at all can be seen in patients that discounts White House claims that the treatment is a breakthrough: "In my mind, treating 98,000 people with plasma and not having conclusive data if it worked is problematic," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases associate director John Beigel told Wired earlier this month.
Though the data so far doesn't suggest that the effects of convalescent plasma will be a game-changing treatment, at least not in isolation, Trump's action today was a cookie-cutter reenactment of what he and his advisers have already done earlier in the pandemic. A week ago, hydroxychloroquine-promoting Trump adviser Peter Navarro again attacked members of the Food and Drug Administration as being part of a "Deep State" acting against Trump, a sentiment that Trump himself followed up on in tweets. This press conference was the result of another pressure campaign against government health experts, in which the FDA was pressured to grant "emergency" authorization of a treatment on Trump and Navarro's say-so, despite a lack of scientific evidence proving it to be effective or useful. It comes over the objection of agency scientists.
It's not a breakthrough. It may have some positive impact, unlike hydroxychloroquine, which was soon found to worsen patient outcomes, but blood plasma has not been the miracle cure Trump and his usual array of anti-science political hacks are hoping for. The Trump team is being dishonest with the nation, yet again, purely as a publicity stunt. Trump cannot competently steer the nation through a nationwide pandemic; both golden boy Jared Kushner and Trump's Fox-culled team of conservatism's most-wrong talking heads have all been proven incompetent. Declaring one new miracle treatment after the next in the hopes of stumbling on something, anything that sticks is now the only pre-election pandemic "plan" Trump, Navarro and the others have.
Also, Donald, you would think at least one person on your staff could have taught you how to correctly say the word "plasma" before holding a goddamn press conference declaring it to be your new favorite cure. Jeebus, people.