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A few minutes with Colonel Sean O’Neil

Trying to persuade other groups to copy the Covid Plasma Initiative’s model


The hall at the Raleigh Hotel in upstate South Fallsburg, New York, was bustling last Tuesday, despite the raging storm outside. Sheets of water were raining down as Tropical Storm Isaias pounded the region, knocking down thousands of trees and eliminating power to over a million New York customers.

Nonetheless, plasma donors from as far away as Boro Park and Lakewood streamed into the hotel to donate their precious plasma to coronavirus-stricken areas of the country. It was a significant donation of time as well — it takes 90 minutes for the blood to flow into a machine, sift it of its antibodies into a yellow collection bag, and then get juiced back into the veins.

The effort was organized by Mordy Serle and Chaim Lebovits, who founded the Covid Plasma Initiative earlier this year on the advice of Rav Yisroel Reisman to “make plasma mainstream.”

It was an unusual direction for the two businessmen — Serle is a real estate and trusts attorney, and Lebovits is a shoe importer. Hospitals were hardly equipped to accept plasma donations, and laws had to be changed to make it a legal treatment for COVID-19. But the latest research, which came out a day after the plasma drive at the Raleigh, shows that patients who get plasma treatment have a 50 percent reduced chance of dying from coronavirus.

The Trump administration has since taken an interest, establishing Operation Warp Speed, which seeks to increase plasma donations across the country. And Colonel Sean O’Neil, a US Army commander who helps coordinate the operation, was on hand in South Fallsburg to learn more about Serle and Lebovits’s initiative. The event was cosponsored by Rabbi Yehuda Kasirer, the executive director of Lev Rochel Bikur Cholim.

O’Neil, in an interview, said he was trying to persuade other groups to copy the Covid Plasma Initiative’s model.

What is Operation Warp Speed?

Operation Warp Speed [OWS] aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

OWS is a partnership among components of the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the Department of Defense.

How did you get involved in it?

I was asked to lead the efforts associated with plasma therapeutics, most notably COVID Convalescent Plasma and Hyper-Immune Globulin therapies.

I understand that Covid Plasma Initiative, the organization behind this plasma drive, was the first to push for plasma donations.

You told me about a group in San Antonio as well. Are other groups doing this around the country?

This event is a great example of how partnerships among community organizations, plasma collectors, and hospital systems can help us achieve the nation’s goals for the collection of COVID-19 convalescent plasma. I’m really impressed by the Covid Plasma Initiative and their efforts to bring together so many partners and to execute these plasma drives. This is a great example of Americans helping Americans, of neighbors helping neighbors.

At Operation Warp Speed, we are eager to learn from events like this — to see how community organizers, like the Covid Plasma Initiative, can identify and motivate donors. Our goal is to take what we learn here and scale this model across the country. We have other communities where we are seeing similar grassroots efforts and community partnerships that are yielding results.

As they say, “we’re all in this together,” so let’s learn what works here and put it into action in other regions.

Do you feel comfortable at this point about the efficacy of convalescent plasma in healing COVID-positive patients?

Currently there are limited treatment options that directly combat the virus. Convalescent plasma offers one potential way to help patients fight the disease. It is being clinically evaluated to determine its efficacy for treatment of COVID-19.

Early results from the FDA’s Expanded Access Program [EAP] show that it is safe for use in patients, but more data is being collected and analyzed to determine its efficacy.

Is there a willingness among hospitals to embrace this relatively new treatment?

I cannot speak to the willingness of hospitals to embrace this as a treatment except to say that many hospitals have accessed COVID convalescent plasma for their patients through the government funded Expanded Access Program, run by the Mayo Clinic, which currently provides convalescent plasma to patients across the country.

Through this EAP, over 13,000 physicians have treated over 56,000 patients with convalescent plasma. The data from this EAP is being used to assess efficacy.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 823)

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