Research institute says it's launching nation's biggest study on COVID-19 antibodies: What it means

Kristen Jordan Shamus
Detroit Free Press
Walton Sun

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Beaumont Health says it is launching the nation's biggest serological testing study of COVID-19 among health care workers and patients, trying to better understand whether people who've already had coronavirus can get the disease again, and to determine when it's safe for people to return to work, as well as identify potential plasma donors.

“In addition to answering key questions on infection spread and the percentage of total asymptomatic cases in a community, we intend to relieve anxiety through a better understanding of the spread of the infection across Beaumont Health,” said Beaumont Health Vice President for Research and Director of the Beaumont Research Institute Richard Kennedy, Ph.D., in a news release.

Using a blood test, researchers will look for antibodies the body creates to fight an infection. In the case of COVID-19, antibodies might develop as soon as three to six days after infection. Even after a person recovers from the coronavirus, antibodies remain. In many other infections, those antibodies offer immunity, protecting a person from getting the same disease twice.

One of the goals of the study will be to answer whether COVID-19 antibodies offer any protection from re-infection.

“I believe having antibodies against COVID-19 will protect people from getting infected again and so do many other physicians," said Dr. Matthew Sims, the study’s principal investigator will be Beaumont’s Director of Infectious Diseases Research.

"In Germany, there is a plan to give people ‘immunity passports’ if they can show they have antibodies to help them get back to work. This study will help prove that antibodies protect those who have them. It is our hope that this study provides a template for others to conduct similar research that will collectively clarify many unknowns of COVID-19."

At a minimum, participants will have their blood drawn twice over two or more weeks to help better understand the rate of new infections and to assess persistence of COVID-19 antibodies.

Beaumont, which is Michigan's largest health system with 38,000 employees, said it intends to use data from this voluntary study conducted by its Research Institute as part of its own return-to-work process, and may help other businesses determine when it is safe for their employees to go back to work.

Another aim of the study is to look at asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 25% to 50% of people with the virus might not show symptoms. However, those individuals could still spread the disease to others.

Beaumont hopes to identify the number of people across its workforce and affiliates who have COVID-19 antibodies but never reported any symptoms.

“The study could also potentially make a difference on a larger scale as well by helping prioritize who should be vaccinated first when a vaccine hopefully becomes available over the next year and a half,” said Dr. Barbara Ducatman, chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. “Individuals who do not have the antibodies or who have a low level of the antibodies should receive the vaccination first, while those with potentially significant levels of protection could wait a bit longer.”

Additionally, those with high levels of antibodies could donate convalescent plasma, which might then be used as a therapeutic treatment to help people who have been sickened by the virus.

This approach has been used for other viral outbreaks such as measles, polio, mumps and influenza.

“This treatment has been used in China with some success, helping COVID-19 patients on ventilators and near death improve enough to begin breathing again on their own,” Sims said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized hospital labs to self-validate their own COVID-19 serological tests. The health system is using two testing kits that recently received certification for use in Europe. However, the tests have not been reviewed by the FDA and results from antibody testing should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose infection or to determine infection status.