As COVID-19 Continues In West, Researchers Hope Antibody Surveys Will Inform Next Steps

Jun 18, 2020
Originally published on June 19, 2020 9:53 am

According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the nation has yet to exit the first wave of this pandemic. Cases in the Northeast and Midwest are, in general, trending downward, but the Mountain West continues to experience local surges in COVID-19.

As a case map from the New York Times shows, that includes a recent spike in Boulder, Colo., that appear to be linked to parties and out-of-state travel, clusters of cases among bar-goers in downtown Boise, a recent surge in Lea County in southeastern New Mexico, and continued upticks of cases in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. In southwestern Wyoming, Uinta County saw a jump from a couple active cases to about 60 active cases over the course of two weeks.

Communities from Idaho to Colorado are still hoping antibody tests can help them understand just how much of a foothold the new coronavirus has taken so far. 

In Arapahoe County, Colo., researchers and local health officials are planning to test about 1,500 people for antibodies against the virus, starting with 500 first responders, and then expanding to 1,000 residents. The plan is to test once in the summer, and again in the fall.

Rosemary Rochford, a viral immunologist with the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine, is leading the research team. She said the group has a number of goals. 

“With first responders, there's not actually a lot of good studies that really focus on them, but they have a lot more exposure to the public, and the greater risk for being infected,” she said.

So, question number one is, have they been harder hit than the general population? Or, if they have a lower rate of positives, Rochford said, “then it would suggest that all the measures they're doing for protective equipment and things like that is actually doing a good job.”

“And then for the population they serve, it's really important for us to know just at the community level: Where's the virus been? What are the risks and how is this changing over time?” she said.

Rochford and her colleagues will be doing blood draws, but another aim of the study is to validate a finger prick antibody test, which she said would make future surveys much easier logistically.  

Arapahoe County is long and skinny, anchored on the western end by urban areas surrounding Denver, and on the other side by towns in the eastern plains, like Deer Trail, which has a population of about 600.

Nathan Fogg, who directs the office of emergency management in Arapahoe County, said estimates vary widely for what percent of the population may have already had COVID-19.

“If we know our range, we can start to give more specific guidance,” he said. “For instance, if the rural areas are significantly less impacted than the more urbanized areas, then perhaps those folks in the rural parts of our community can re-engage sooner in public life than a more urbanized area.”

Fogg said federal funding through the CARES Act will pay for the study, expected to cost about $250,000.

“We were actually trying to source some commercially available test kits, which, just like everything related to COVID, was super hard to come by,” he said. “The order we made in March never really showed up.”

A statement from Colorado’s health department said an antibody survey like this one could provide useful information, including the effectiveness of certain containment strategies. 

“If the numbers of seropositive persons increased a lot in just a few months, without many ill persons, that would suggest high rates of asymptomatic spreading," the health department said. "In turn, this could change the way we are thinking about the possibility of spread in September through October. Maybe the pandemic in the fall won’t cause a lot of sickness, allowing us to keep schools and businesses open.”

Other antibody surveys have suffered from all manner of issues, from delayed processing times to difficulties in attracting a truly representative sample of volunteers. 

“It’s frustrating that there’s not a national model that’s being provided for every state to follow,” said Rochford. 

Instead, her group plans to follow the lead of a team at the University of Utah, which is currently conducting a large antibody study in the Salt Lake City area and is recruiting people from a random selection of addresses, as opposed to advertising online or using another recruitment method that might suffer from something called “selection bias” or “volunteer bias.” Rochford said in Arapahoe County, they’ll ask all members of selected households to participate, from 5 years of age and up.

It is still unclear what amount of protection antibodies provide against future infection, and how long that protection lasts.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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