The partnerships formed among government entities, private businesses and civic and nonprofit organizations have been essential in flattening the curve of the first wave of the coronavirus. However, Cincinnati has also emerged as one of the leading health care centers in the nation for programs, initiatives and protocols to help fight the pandemic.

The Hoxworth Blood Center of the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are just two of the health care organizations that have excelled during the pandemic.

According to its website, Cincinnati Children’s is one of four sites in the U.S. participating in a Phase 1/2 clinical trial for the BNT162 vaccine program to prevent COVID-19. The trial, part of a global development, began in Germany where the dosing of the first participants was completed last month.

For its part, Hoxworth Blood Center, which supplies the entire Cincinnati Metropolitan and the surrounding Tristate area with blood and plasma products, has been at the forefront of collecting and processing COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma (CCP), which is vital as a therapeutic treatment for medium-to-severe coronavirus cases.

The whole idea with the treatment is to take plasma from people who have recovered from the coronavirus, which contains antibodies that can then be used to help infected patients fight the virus.

“A lot of times, people associate antibodies with bacteria, but we can use them to help fight viruses as well,” says Dr. David Oh, chief medical officer at Hoxworth. “Essentially, someone who is infected with the virus develops antibodies as a part of the immune response that helps them fight off the infecting agent. Instead of having a person build that defense on their own with a vaccine, we’re taking plasma from people who have already fought the disease and developed those antibodies and transfusing the plasma to another person. Those antibodies can then help fight the virus in the new person.”

The program started in mid-April, says Oh, and by mid-May Hoxworth had distributed well over 100 units. The typical patient needs one or two units of plasma as a functional dose.

“Most of the patients who are getting transfused are in pretty bad shape. They have moderate to severe illness, and sometimes very severe illness,” says Oh. “Many physicians who are using this treatment are very excited about the results to this point.”

But CCP is only a therapy and will likely be used as a treatment until a vaccine is fully developed, which could be as much as a year away.

In addition to its role as one of four sites for a clinical trial of a vaccine for COVID-19, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has emerged as a national leader in treatment, protocols and programs that will help combat the novel virus. It has done this while maintaining a continuum of care for its young patients, creating safe protocols for its health care professionals and frontline essential workers, and establishing more transparent communications with collaborating health care organizations across the Tristate.

But doesn’t the coronavirus typically impact patients that are older rather than children? And why is a children’s hospital so involved?

“Regardless of the impact of an illness on different patient populations, Cincinnati Children’s is one of the leading centers for research in the nation,” says Dr. Nathan Timm, an attending physician for the Division of Emergency Medicine and the medical director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Cincinnati Children’s has the top minds that can look at and really transcend all people who are impacted by this virus, not just our population or the elderly who are in nursing homes.”

While it’s participating in a clinical trial for a vaccine, Cincinnati Children’s recently developed a new mail-in blood test for children with transplanted organs, eliminating the need for vulnerable immunosuppressed patients to visit the hospital to have blood drawn in person.

“Given the current pandemic, this is game-changing for these transplant patients and it helps reduce their risk of possible COVID-19 infection. At the same time, it allows patients to maintain their post-transplant follow-up,” says Kenneth D. Setchell, professor and director of the Clinical Mass Spectrometry Laboratory that developed the test.

Transplant patients have to take anti-rejection drugs to help minimize risk for organ rejection. These immunosuppressant drugs can be toxic to the body and blood levels must be carefully monitored.

Levels for immunosuppressant drugs like tacrolimus, sirolimus, everolimus and Cyclosporin A, are normally measured in whole blood following venipuncture performed at a clinic. Patients on these medications are at much greater risk of COVID-19 and stay-at-home instructions complicates the process of blood draw at the hospital, according to Setchell.

In addition, the scientists at Cincinnati Children’s recently launched six projects aimed at understanding and defeating the virus that causes COVID-19. These projects received a combined $450,000 in funding.

The six projects include everything from developing vaccine nanoparticles for potential development of a vaccine, studying the effects of the coronavirus on the heart and three separate data analysis programs, which study how the virus affects foster youth and adolescents with and without ADHD and Sickle Cell disease. A sixth program studies how artificial intelligence can be leveraged to facilitate early detection of coronavirus infection and deterioration in the pediatric population.

“These projects were selected by a panel of senior research leaders at Cincinnati Children’s from more than 35 proposals,” says Dr. Hector Wong, interim chair of the Department of Pediatrics and interim director of the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation, on Cincinnati Children’s website. “We deeply appreciate the swift, creative and enthusiastic response of our faculty to this global health crisis and we look forward to seeing the results of these important research efforts.”