They have no idea how they caught it. Sequestered for nearly two weeks in Elmwood, the official house of Harvard University presidents, Lawrence S. Bacow and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, thought they had distanced themselves from the coronavirus.
But despite their precautions, on March 24 the Bacows, both 68, were diagnosed with COVID-19. On Tuesday, feeling better ― and grateful that they had fought off the illness that has killed at least 124,000 people worldwide ― the couple donated blood at Massachusetts General Hospital in the hopes that antibodies made by their immune systems can help researchers create a treatment or vaccine.
“I tend to feel terrific at the beginning of the day, and I’m dragging by the end,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said before he and his wife each donated 60 milliliters of blood that will be used by a research consortium led by Harvard Medical School. “Once Adele and I recovered from the virus ourselves, it just seemed obvious that we should try to contribute to this effort."
“I feel fine and very fortunate to have this behind us," said Adele Bacow, president of Community Partners Consultants, an urban planning firm. She and her husband plan to provide blood and saliva samples periodically over the next two years.
The donation gave a symbolic boost to researchers in Massachusetts and beyond who hope to create therapeutic antibodies to treat people infected with the new coronavirus. Antibodies could also potentially be used in a vaccine that at least temporarily protects individuals at high risk for catching the virus, such as health care workers.
The Harvard-led Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, a group of doctors, scientists, and epidemiologists hastily organized in February, has obtained 130 blood samples in roughly two weeks from people who were diagnosed with the highly contagious illness, said George Q. Daley, dean of the medical school.
The group plans to collect thousands of blood samples to study various aspects of the disease, including how the body’s white blood cells are able to identify and kill virus-infected cells. But few of those rolling up their sleeves will be as prominent as the Bacows.
“It sends a very strong message that we’re all in this together,” said Dr. Jonathan Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School who is helping to lead a consortium team working on antibody-based treatments. “Just as there are folks who have their hands on pipettes in the lab, there are individuals higher in the university who are very much committed to ending this pandemic."
For more than a century, doctors have known that transfusions of antibody-rich plasma from patients who recovered from a disease can sometimes treat others with the illness. An early use of convalescent plasma came in the 1890s as a treatment for diphtheria, Abraham said. Plasma is the clear, straw-colored liquid portion of blood that remains after the removal of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, there has been renewed interest in arming the immune system of sick people with plasma from those who recovered. Two medical teams working at separate hospitals in China gave plasma to 15 seriously ill patients and observed marked improvements in many of them, according to recent studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of the American Medical Association. But scientists have cautioned that those findings need to be confirmed in larger studies.
Takeda Pharmacuetical, which is based on Osaka, Japan, and has its US headquarters in Cambridge, announced on March 4 that it was working on a plasma-derived therapy for people who are especially vulnerable if they catch COVID-19, including the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions. Takeda’s approach uses more concentrated antibodies taken from blood.
Still, convalescent plasma has some drawbacks as a potential coronavirus treatment, experts say.
Each donor makes hundreds of thousands of antibodies that target the “spike” protein that scientists believe the virus uses to invade human cells. But some antibodies are better than others. There’s also a limited supply of donated blood.
As a result, researchers at the consortium and several universities and biotechs are trying to figure out which antibodies are the most effective in fighting a coronavirus infection. Armed with that information, they then plan to make vast quantities of identical copies of these proteins in the lab.
Firms seeking to develop such so-called monoclonal antibodies include San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology, which is working through separate partnerships with Biogen, the Cambridge biotech, and WuXi Biologics, a manufacturer based in China.
“We’re going to find as many of the best antibodies from as many donors as we can,” Phillip Pang, chief medical officer for Vir, told the Globe recently when the company asked residents of Boston and five other US hot spots in the epidemic to donate blood if they had recovered from COVID-19.
Abraham, the Harvard microbiologist, said consortium researchers hope to isolate the best antibodies from multiple donors and then manufacture the most effective treatment cocktail.
“We don’t know whose blood will have the magic bullet to treat this virus,” he said.
Donors need to have had documented COVID-19 infections and no longer be symptomatic, according to a spokeswoman for Harvard Medical School. The 130 donors so far include people hospitalized with the disease as well as outpatients. Some also provided nasal swabs, throat swabs, and urine and stool samples to researchers.
Abraham’s team could begin testing therapeutic antibodies in a clinical trial within a couple of months and might be able to deploy it as a treatment by the end of the summer, he said.
A few hours before the Bacows donated blood Tuesday, Lawrence Bacow said that he and his wife had worked from home for 10 days prior to getting sick and hadn’t seen anyone during that time.
“I could have been infected in the four days before that,” he said, noting that the incubation period is believed to be up to two weeks. “I meet a lot of people in my job.”
Bacow, the former president of Tufts University and president of Harvard since 2018, has an autoimmune disorder that he declined to discuss in detail. He said he was grateful that his primary care physician called him the week before he got sick to urge him to stop taking a daily medicine that suppresses his immune system.
“That really saved me from something worse,” Bacow said.
He said he had muscle aches, chills, and a dry cough during the illness, and felt like he had the flu. But he and his wife avoided the severe respiratory symptoms that others have experienced.
Now that he has largely recovered, Bacow is easing back into his running routine but only does half of his customary four to six miles.
The Massachusetts consortium studying COVID-19 includes more than 100 scientists from five universities and research institutes in the Boston area, as well as Harvard-affiliated hospitals. China Evergrande Group, a major real estate company in China, has provided a $115 million research grant that’s being shared with the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.