Meet the oncologist behind India's first clinical trial using convalescent plasma to treat coronavirus

Dr Vishal Rao of HCG Cancer Centre, Bangalore, explains how the hospital is trying to use convalescent plasma to cure coronavirus.

For the last few months, the world has been battling the same enemy – the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Many countries are on lockdown and life, as we knew it, has completely been turned upside down. 

Even as preventive measures are in place, a cure for coronavirus is the need of the hour. Across the globe, medical teams are rushing to put together a vaccine, find a cure, with some even starting clinical trials for the same. Experts believe that we may have a vaccine ready by 2021.  

In India, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) recently granted approval to HCG Cancer Centre, a private hospital in Bengaluru, to conduct clinical trials on coronavirus patients using convalescent plasma therapy

In a conversation with YourStory Media Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma, Dr Vishal Rao of HCG explained what convalescent plasma therapy is, and how HCG is using it to treat coronavirus patients.

Watch the whole interview here.

To begin with, Dr Vishal advises states to build a Chinese wall between people who test positive and negative to coronavirus. “Only then can we slowly open up the economy,” he says.

According to him, one-fourth of the 400 clinical trials running around COVID-19 involve plasma therapy. 

Convalescent plasma therapy is an age-old theory that has served well in earlier flu outbreaks. It involves using the blood of a convalescent – someone who is in recovery from the same illness – as it would have the necessary antibodies to fight the virus.

Simply put, anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 will have the required antibodies in their plasma to fight this disease. 

For Dr Vishal, the goal is to reach a point where no one dies of COVID-19 anymore. 

“We’re an oncology-focussed institute and viruses are a part of our lives as they are known to cause cancer. So, we have been doing a lot of our work in immunology on viruses,” he explains.

Realising this work could be applied to cure coronavirus as well, Dr Vishal and his team at HCG fast-tracked their work over the last month, supported by research from doctors and scientists across the world. 

Receiving permission from the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) under the provisions of New Drugs and Clinical Trial Rules, 2019, was the first step to success.

“The challenge in front of us is ‘can we save every life currently at threat by the virus’,” says Dr Vishal.

For now, HCG has proposed a Phase-I clinical trial, similar to how one would go about releasing a new drug. 

But, will it work? Dr Vishal is optimistic as the proof of concept for convalescent plasma theory lies in the data from how earlier viruses – influenza, SARS, etc., – could be treated using the same method. 

Other Phase-I studies on COVID-19 too indicate that convalescent plasma therapy may be effective in curing coronavirus.

Edited by Megha Reddy