The pandemic that galvanized the life sciences industry to come up with a vaccine at record pace has also prompted health marketers to find new ways to pitch in. Some have donated protective equipment, others creative muscle or philanthropy.
But when Jan Weinstein says she’s committed herself to the cause of eradicating COVID-19, she means this in the most literal sense.
“Whatever science wants for me, as it pertains to this illness, I’m here,” said Weinstein, who has spent hours in specially designed blood banks tethered to an apheresis machine as technicians tap her veins for convalescent plasma.
Weinstein is among the relatively few people, even among those who have recovered from COVID-19, to also have been found to have extremely potent levels of virus-fighting antibodies in their blood. So she finds herself in a position to help determine the utility of those antibodies as a potential COVID-19 treatment. To the extent that donating herself to science can help others, Weinstein – a senior-level media buyer at Publicis Health Media and an alum of Wavemaker and Carat – is all-in.
“Believe me, it’s no badge of honor that we’ve had COVID,” she said. “But I’m proud to say that, having had it, I want to take it and try to make a difference, because I can.”
Weinstein – or, more specifically, her plasma – is now part of a government-backed, Phase 3 study examining whether antibodies isolated into a plasma-derived therapy and given as a treatment to others at the onset of COVID-19 symptoms could augment the body’s natural, and possibly delayed, antibody response. Emergent BioSolutions is one of four companies providing product, known as hyperimmune globulin, for the trial.
In July Emergent formed a collaboration with Mount Sinai Health System and ImmunoTek, which builds and manages plasma collection centers, to establish an on-site center at the hospital. Plasma collected there is supporting Emergent’s product candidate, and Weinstein’s been banking her plasma at Sinai for the last several weeks.
The process by which Weinstein decided to commit to that effort wasn’t exactly a linear one.
Earlier this year, the NYC native learned that she had COVID-19 – but she didn’t receive the news via a formal diagnosis, as has been the case for more than a million residents of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. Instead, she found out by taking an antibody test a couple of months after her fever, body aches and upset stomach first appeared.
Meanwhile, a friend who’d been following the ups and downs of Weinstein’s coronavirus journey on social media told her about Survivor Corps, a 100,000-strong, grassroots group committed to ending the pandemic through mobilizing an effort to stimulate convalescent plasma donations and people to participate in research. She joined and was contacted by the New York Blood Center, which put her on a plasma donation schedule.
From July 4 through early October, Weinstein was allowed a total of eight donations. “I wasn’t successful every time, because I fluctuated with my iron levels,” she said. Determined to complete her quota, Weinstein took supplements and vitamin C – and added spinach, red meat and chopped liver to her diet – to try to up her iron counts. In the end, she accomplished the eight donations on time.
Collected plasma is typically sent to hospitals to help treat patients with COVID-19, said an NYBC representative, adding that, “Most donate a few times, but we are grateful for all donors.”
That was only the gateway to her volunteerism, though. Weinstein subsequently discovered that her antibody titers – an indicator of the strength of antibody response – were extraordinarily high. Scored on a numerical scale, “Mine were as high as you could go,” she recalled.
This made her something of a statistical outlier. A government-funded study found that only 1% of past COVID-19 patients had high levels of antibodies in their blood plasma that could neutralize the virus.
Mount Sinai Hospital, where she had her titers drawn, subsequently asked if Weinstein would be part of the group donating their high antibodies to the development of Emergent’s hyperimmune globulin product for its Phase 3 study, codenamed INSIGHT013. She embraced that opportunity, too, and has been visiting Sinai’s collection center twice a week for the last several weeks.
“That’s the maximum donation level they’ll accept, and I always push myself to do the maximum,” she explained.
Every time Weinstein donates, Emergent contributes on her behalf to one of three NYC-oriented charitable initiatives, whether PPE or food delivery for hospital workers or homegrown, sustainable farming.
“We feel this is a meaningful way to both acknowledge the donors’ selfless contributions, and also support local organizations during this pandemic,” explained Dr. Laura Saward, SVP/therapeutics business head at Emergent.
“Plasma donors are unsung heroes in this effort and their essential contributions play a critical role in advancing solutions to COVID-19,” she added.
But Weinstein said her greater goal – and the reason behind her decision to journal her donations on Instagram and Facebook – has been to eliminate stigma around COVID-19 and to educate about the virus. Specifically, she wants people to know that it’s “not always respiratory; that it affects the joints, stomach, heart and mind. Not everyone loses their taste and smell.”
One also senses a deeper purpose behind Weinstein’s efforts, a kindness born of a once-in-a-lifetime shot to help others. In a LinkedIn piece, dedicated to the more than 250,000 lives lost to the pandemic in the U.S., she wrote of her last summertime donation at New York Blood Center: “This one milestone was bittersweet, as I feel powerful, helpful and inspired watching the bag of yellow fluid collect.”
In August the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for COVID-19 convalescent plasma in the treatment of hospitalized patients with COVID-19. At the time, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that convalescent plasma had reached more than 70,000 American patients. The FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, added that he was “encouraged by early promising data.”
Days later, however, the National Institutes of Health threw shade on FDA’s take, saying there are “currently no data from well-controlled, adequately powered randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy and safety” of the treatment in COVID-19. It added that plasma “should not be considered” standard of care for treating these patients.
Saward points out that the NIH’s statement was made specifically with regard to convalescent plasma, not plasma-derived hyper-immunoglobulin products, which Emergent and three other companies are testing in the randomized, placebo-controlled INSIGHT013 trial, which is now actively recruiting at multiple centers around the world. “It is absolutely critical that we demonstrate efficacy and safety in appropriate clinical trials,” she said.
Indeed, we’ve yet to see the last word from regulators. This week, the FDA revised its EUA to add an antibody test – developed by Mount Sinai – to be used for the purpose of qualifying high and low titer COVID-19 convalescent plasma in the manufacture of plasma-derived products. Other pharma-backed research alliances are also testing plasma products.
In addition to her plasma donations, Weinstein has advised on media and raising awareness of the need for research volunteers as part of her role at PHM. She has also weighed in on survey design with the firm IQVIA and participated in a donor trial with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
“Everybody in some way has been touched by this, and I don’t just mean the lockdown and the remote working,” Weinstein said. “Either they know someone or have not been able to see family members because of it. And it’s not showing any signs of slowing down, unfortunately.”
That sense of interconnectedness and potential to set an example for others amidst an otherwise bleak situation, has turned out to be Weinstein’s inspiration. “From my standpoint, the least I could do is try to inspire one other person, and if we collectively try to do that, maybe it will make a difference. That’s all I can hope for.”