Scott Cohen was on a ventilator struggling for his life with Covid-19 last April when his brothers pleaded with Plainview Hospital on Long Island to infuse him with the blood plasma of a recovered patient.
The experimental treatment was hard to get but was gaining attention at a time when doctors had little else. After an online petition drew 18,000 signatures, the hospital gave Mr. Cohen, a retired Nassau County medic, an infusion of the pale yellow stuff that some called “liquid gold.”
In those terrifying early months of the pandemic, the idea that antibody-rich plasma could save lives took on a life of its own before there was evidence that it worked. The Trump administration, buoyed by proponents at elite medical institutions, seized on plasma as a good-news story at a time when there weren’t many others. It awarded more than $800 million to entities involved in its collection and administration, and put Dr. Anthony S. Fauci’s face on billboards promoting the treatment.
A coalition of companies and nonprofit groups, including the Mayo Clinic, Red Cross and Microsoft, mobilized to urge donations from people who had recovered from Covid-19, enlisting celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, the actor known as the Rock. Volunteers, some dressed in superhero capes, showed up to blood banks in droves.
took a long time to measure its effectiveness. Eventually, studies did emerge to suggest that under the right conditions, plasma might help. But enough evidence has now accumulated to show that the country’s broad, costly plasma campaign had little effect, especially in people whose disease was advanced enough to land them in the hospital.
N.I.H. recently halted an outpatient trial of plasma because of a lack of benefit.
Doctors have used the antibodies of recovered patients as treatments for more than a century, for diseases including diphtheria, the 1918 flu and Ebola.
So when patients began falling ill with the new coronavirus last year, doctors around the world turned to the old standby.
In the United States, two hospitals — Mount Sinai in New York City and Houston Methodist in Texas — administered the first plasma units to Covid-19 patients within hours of each other on March 28.
Dr. Nicole M. Bouvier, an infectious-disease doctor who helped set up Mount Sinai’s plasma program, said the hospital had tried the experimental treatment because blood transfusions carry a relatively low risk of harm. With a new virus spreading quickly, and no approved treatments, “nature is a much better manufacturer than we are,” she said.
As Mount Sinai prepared to infuse patients with plasma, Diana Berrent, a photographer, was recovering from Covid-19 at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. Friends began sending her Mount Sinai’s call for donors.