Japan's largest drugmaker, Takeda Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:TAK), announced Wednesday that it will initiate a program to test plasma-derived therapies (PDT) in high-risk individuals who might die from COVID-19. These therapies were successfully used as last-resort treatments in prior outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and Ebola.   

The new program, called TAK-888, will ultimately use a type of blood plasma from people who have successfully recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infections. It is believed these donors will have developed antibodies to the novel coronavirus. Thus, therapies derived from their plasma should help others to fight it off. 

Blood cells

Image source: Getty Images

"Plasma-derived therapies are critical, life-saving medicines that thousands of people with rare and complex diseases rely on every day around the world," said Dr. Chris Morabito, Takeda's Head of Research and Development, Plasma-Derived Therapies Business Unit. "Our heritage, combined with our scale, expertise and capabilities, uniquely position Takeda to realize the potential of plasma-derived therapies, such as TAK-888." 

Takeda's plasma-derived therapies business came to it as part of its 2018 acquisition of Shire. While PDT has a history of success as a treatment for high-risk respiratory diseases, it's limited in scope. PDT might offer a cure for thousands of people, but not millions.   

One difficulty with the treatment is the small amount of blood supply of people who have developed an immune response to COVID-19. Also, there are manufacturing issues with PDT that limit its usefulness. Takeda reports that it can take more than 1,000 blood donations to derive a one-year supply of therapy for one person. And the process of creating a plasma-derived therapy can take a year.  

Nonetheless, there's a good chance this treatment might reduce fatalities. Takeda Pharmaceuticals stock was up by around 5% in midafternoon trading Wednesday.