Against the long Covid, the exorbitant and experimental "blood washing" therapy

The second time, Lilas began to feel uneasy.

Against the long Covid, the exorbitant and experimental "blood washing" therapy

The second time, Lilas began to feel uneasy. It was September 2021. Two doctors squeezed through the pipes surrounding him and lifted his legs, before cutting off the oven-sized machine, hooked up to his forearms. But the paraphernalia did not deter the thirties. "On the contrary, I felt in good hands," she says. Despite the incident, the young woman again connected to the machine: "Each time, the nurses prick me in both arms. A large needle pumps my blood, and I'm better."

In the hope of treating a particularly severe long Covid which has made her suffer since March 2020, Lilas decided to carry out a series of "blood washings", given in a private clinic in Germany. In search of relief, thousands of people around the world have, like her, tried this invasive technique, mainly indicated for patients suffering from excess cholesterol. Sold for several tens of thousands of euros, these experimental cures have not yet proven their effectiveness against Sars-CoV-2.

For its fifteen blood washings carried out since September 2021, Lilas has paid more than 20,000 euros. The prize for him "saving his life". "I was in a state of intolerable suffering but I remained skeptical about this treatment. However, from the first session, I was stricken with relief", she rejoices. During these sessions, his red blood cells and plasma were separated and filtered, before being returned to him. Since then, his breathing difficulties, memory loss and generalized anxiety have receded. The young woman is now considering resuming the sociology lessons she taught in a major Parisian school.

Lilas benefited from a protocol developed by Beate R. Jaeger, a recognized researcher, based in Mülheim, Germany. Among the first people convinced of the potential of "therapeutic apheresis" - the medical name for washing blood -, this scientist has been offering it with a vengeance since February 2021. Combined with high doses of anticoagulants, the act would have “good therapeutic results”, which will “soon be the subject of a study”, promises the therapist specializing in hemodialysis on her website. However, it is not specified that, in rare cases, apheresis can cause ischemia, myocardial infarction or even respiratory arrest.

Filtering the blood of patients in the hope of curing the long Covid is, in theory, nothing far-fetched. While the causes of this tenacious and sometimes very disabling form of the disease remain uncertain, several scientific studies tend to show that the presence of blood microclots could be the cause of certain neurological symptoms, such as brain fog. According to some scientists, apheresis could then help get rid of them, by releasing and trapping them. Several experimental protocols based on this treatment are being analyzed on small samples of volunteers. Too ill, Lilas did not wait for the results.

These leads nonetheless remain partial hypotheses, which need to be supplemented and demonstrated. "The clinics that offer apheresis at all costs are experimenting without a framework. And some take advantage of people's despair", regrets Olivier Robineau, coordinator of the research group around the long Covid of the ANRS, the National Agency for Research on AIDS and Viral Hepatitis. "I have patients who have spent more than 8,000 euros, without any results. Others have benefited from apheresis even before having completed the recommended multidisciplinary care", he continues.

On social networks, several dozen French-speaking patients claim to follow or consider this treatment. Word of mouth does its work, outside of any academic circuit. “Someone explained that the apheresis had been miraculous for him, so I tried everything for everything”, testifies Wilfrid, 34, leader of one of the many self-help groups around the long Covid created on Facebook. . "I took all my savings and went to Mülheim". After about fifteen apheresis from Dr. Jaeger, he too aspires to resume his work. This official in the repression of fraud has regained around twenty kilos and in turn praises the merits of this cure, which cost him more than 30,000 euros and a debt to the bank.

Despite these exorbitant prices and the absence of favorable recommendations from the German authorities, in November 2021, more than 7,000 people were already registered to receive Dr. Jaeger's care, according to the local press. In parallel, similar cures have emerged. In Switzerland, "a few private clinics offer this therapy", even if the evidence of its "effectiveness is lacking", recognizes Simon Ming, spokesperson for the Federal Office of Public Health. In Cyprus, a center entirely dedicated to this therapy has even recently hatched, with great fanfare.

Called "Long Covid Center", this clinic built in Larnaca, a port city in southern Cyprus, testifies to the potential abuses of these experimental treatments. The establishment has been at the heart of a political and judicial maelstrom since the publication of an investigation by the British Medical Journal on July 12. According to the testimonies appearing in this important scientific journal, the center would have tried to take advantage of the credulity of certain patients by offering cocktails of vitamins and hydroxychloroquine, in addition to blood washes sometimes presented as proven solutions.

Better still: the Cypriot Ministry of Health now suspects the "Long Covid Center" of using human embryo cells imported from Ukraine as a miracle cure for long Covid. Illegal use in Europe. According to the BMJ, the founder of the establishment, Markus Klotz, an Austrian businessman, would also have given birth to one of the largest communities promoting blood washes against Covid-19, the Apheresis Association. On the Facebook group backed by this initiative - 5,000 members on the clock - the administrators repeat that this bad press is just a collection of "false information". And ensure that Markus Klotz is no longer involved in this community.

Such predatory behavior has provoked the indignation of part of the scientific community, like the editor of the British Medical Journal. "There is no scientific proof of the benefits of these products, only anecdotal reports and the blind faith of vulnerable people, in search of a miracle cure. We all need hope, but the hope can be dangerous,” he warned in an editorial published on July 14. Since then, the subject has fueled scientific controversy across the Channel.

In France alone, more than 2 million people could suffer from a long Covid, according to a study by Public Health France, published on July 22, 2022. "This question brings us back to what happened at the beginning of the health crisis and the controversy around hydroxychloroquine. But apheresis has fewer arguments in its favor than this molecule had at the time", assures Olivier Robineau.

The specialist insists: "the protocol in force in France, consisting of significant medical monitoring, but also in physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, neuropsychology, is neither medicinal nor simple, but that does not mean that it is not has no effect on the symptoms of patients. And nothing says that a single method or a single molecule could be the solution in the future, in view of the complexity of this disease which can have multiple causes and differ from each other. 'one patient to another', warns the lecturer in infectious disease in Tourcoing. He concludes: "The legend says that the Rolling Stones had their blood changed in Switzerland to stay young. But that's just a legend."

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