VA says it will take part in drug and plasma trials to combat COVID-19

Abbie Bennett
May 01, 2020 - 3:00 pm
Coronavirus

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to participate in drug and plasma trials in an attempt to combat the coronavirus, the agency announced Friday.

The clinical trials and investigations will take place nationwide and are aimed at "finding ways to mitigate or potentially prevent symptoms of the coronavirus," VA said in a news release. 

“We’re in a position to do things that no one else in the world can do to improve the health of our veterans, the nation and the world,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “VA is bringing all of its expertise to bear during this crisis, and now we’re leading the way on research into pharmaceuticals and treatments that could improve the lives of thousands of patients.”

VA, the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, serves about 9.5 million patients -- or about half of America's veterans. About half of VA's patients are 65 or older, a population at higher risk for the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

VA plans to work with the Mayo Clinic, which is studying whether blood transfusions from people who recovered from the virus could help those still fighting it. Plasma from COVID-19 could contain antibodies that may help patients still experiencing symptoms. 

More than 60 VA medical centers are "prepared to perform transfusions of this plasma to COVID-19 patients," VA said. 

The Food and Drug Administration approved expanded access to plasma transfusions from recovered COVID-19 patients earlier this month. Patients who have fully recovered for at least two weeks are encouraged to consider donating plasma, according to the FDA. 

VA researchers also are developing other clinical trials that could help virus patients. Some are still in development while others are already enrolling volunteers, the department said. Those include: 

  • VA medical centers in Denver, New Orleans and Palo Alto, Calif. joining a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study to determine whether drugs such as remdesivir are effective against the virus. 
  • The Atlanta VA is working with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals to determine whether sarilumab, a drug normally used to help treat rheumatoid arthritis, could also be used to treat the coronavirus. 
  • VA plans to launch a study with the Defense Department "to better understand the epidemiology and clinical characteristics of COVID-19" with work from the Seattle VA Medical Center and researchers in Durham, N.C., West Haven, Conn., Boston and Palo Alto. 

VA and Wilkie specifically have recently come under fire for the department's use of hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients, an antimalarial drug so far unproven as a treatment for COVID-19. The drug has been touted by President Donald Trump and recently Wilkie said it was effective for younger veterans, though there is no published scientific evidence to support that. 

One study showed that veterans treated with the drug were more likely to die. 

Veteran advocates criticized VA, accusing the department of using veterans as "test subjects" for the drug, which Wilkie denied.

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Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. For secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com

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