USAISR Soldiers on the Frontline of National Efforts to Combat COVID-19 Pandemic
In the military medical world, perhaps no one plays the role of the unassuming hero better than U.S. Army medical laboratory specialist. These vital players traditionally serve in military hospitals and clinics around the world, supporting lab services for patients while also providing expeditionary laboratory support to deployed service members. But at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, laboratory specialists enjoy a more unique role away from direct patient care. At the USAISR, these Soldiers work in tandem with researchers and scientists to develop innovative ways to improve the care provided to wounded Warfighters on the battlefield.
The current COVID-19 pandemic and the tremendous damage it has inflicted across the United States has provided a unique opportunity for twelve of the USAISR's medical laboratory specialists. These Soldiers have been called to apply their skills and experience in direct support of the national effort to combat this pandemic and help save the lives of patients suffering from the COVID-19 virus. As part of Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a multi-agency, U.S. Government initiative to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutic treatments, and diagnostic tests, the USAISR deployed these service members to the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center (STBTC) in San Antonio for 30 days to assist in the collection and distribution of COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma (CCP) from volunteers who have recovered from COVID-19 infections.
"COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma is a licensed plasma product, the same as fresh frozen plasma, collected from COVID-19 patients whose infection was confirmed by laboratory tests and whose symptoms have resolved at least 14 days prior to collection," said Col. (Dr.) Andre Cap, USAISR director of research. "The use of this product to treat COVID-19 is considered investigational by the Food and Drug Administration and can only occur in the context of an Expanded Access Investigational New Drug (EA-IND) protocol or a single patient Emergency IND (E-IND). CCP is available to civilians under the Mayo Clinic EA-IND or E-INDs and to military patients under both of these mechanisms as well as a Force Health Protection EA-IND."
The convalescent plasma collected at the STBTC is ordered by doctors and given to patients in both San Antonio and south Texas with severe COVID-19 disease to boost their ability to fight the virus. According to Cap, patients whom he knows that have been treated with CCP have had positive results; an outcome which has only increased demand for the product. The requests for CCP from the STBTC spiked in late spring and early summer; a demand which could not be met immediately due to shortage of manpower. As a result, a call for support went out to those aforementioned USAISR Soldiers – along with four U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) officers – to help collaborate with STBTC staff to meet the demand.
Jose Quesada, STBTC director of manufacturing said the additional personnel has made a positive impact since deploying in early July.
"Their contributions have tremendously impacted the operation and the production of COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma at the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center," he added. "With the support of the USAISR Soldiers and the USPHS officers, the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center has been able to increase donor recruitment by 400 percent and collection by 150 percent in a two-week period. The STBTC organization is on target to provide 100 percent of the community needs within a week or less."
STBTC also plans on collecting and storing additional units of CCP in case there is another spike in COVID-19 cases in the future. "The recruitment, collection, distribution and storage plan is underway to not only produce for the COVID-19 plasma needs of the community but to start storing for the required storage of a national stockage plan as assigned by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority [BARDA]," said Quesada.
The USAISR non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the mission at the STBTC, Sgt. Stephen Freed, said that being part of a mission that is supporting our Nation and the local population to recover from this pandemic is extremely rewarding.
"The feeling that I get is beyond words that could express how each and every one of us feel for aiding in saving people's lives," he said. "The best part of being involved with this mission is knowing that one CCP unit collected is five more lives that have a better chance of recovering from COVID-19."
Volunteer donors like Christian Villalpando are provided information from healthcare providers on how to donate CCP after they have tested positive for COVID-19. In Villalpando's case, he contacted the STBTC and was then screened to determine if he met the donation criteria. When asked why he was donating blood, Villalpando stated his mother was given a blood transfusion when she was alive. "This is my way of giving back for something that was done for her," he said.
As a part of the process of developing CCP, plasma is first separated from the blood before undergoing another, different separation process. By the end, one unit of plasma yields four-to-five units of CCP. On average, STBTC distributes more than 500 units of blood products and 30 to 40 units of CCP daily.
"This is crucial not only right now for the mission, but also for these Soldiers in future events like going down range to a blood support unit and being able to conduct a whole blood collection walking blood bank in the event of a mass casualty," added Freed. "The benefit that the Soldiers and the USAISR can get out of this whole mission is knowing that there is hope. Having COVID-19 donors and providing the next line of defense for those who are on respirators with the little bag of gold gives hope to everyone making this exponential."
"I am extremely proud of the work that our Soldiers are doing to support this mission," said Col. (Dr.) Mark Stackle, USAISR Commander. "It's also gratifying to see how the Department of Defense can work together with other governmental and state agencies to make a difference in this national crisis."