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NIH Tracks Undetected Virus Spread in Healthy Americans

April 10, 2020, 9:34 PM

The National Institutes of Health wants to track the “true magnitude” of the coronavirus in the U.S. in a new research project that could provide crucial insight about how and when the nation can begin to open back up.

The study aims to enroll 10,000 healthy volunteers to determine how many adults have antibodies of the SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but haven’t shown any symptoms of being sick. The presence of those antibodies in the blood indicates a person had a prior infection, and that information can identify the extent to which the virus has spread without being detected, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.

“This study will give us a clearer picture of the true magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States by telling us how many people in different communities have been infected without knowing it, because they had a very mild, undocumented illness or did not access testing while they were sick,” NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci said in a statement. “These crucial data will help us measure the impact of our public health efforts now and guide our COVID-19 response moving forward.”

Antibodies are proteins the immune system produces to fight a specific pathogen. Researchers will use blood samples to look for two types of antigens and follow up with additional evaluation to figure out why some patients had mild cases while others had to be hospitalized.

Most testing in the country to date has relied on molecular tests that determine whether someone currently has Covid-19 but can’t tell if someone had the disease and then recovered.

“An antibody test is looking back into the immune system’s history with a rearview mirror,” Dr. Matthew J. Memoli, principal investigator of the study, said in a statement. “By analyzing an individual’s blood, we can determine if that person has encountered SARS-CoV-2 previously.”

The NIAID scientists will be aided by researchers at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering with additional support from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.

Some participants will have their blood drawn on the NIH’s campus and others will use an at-home device that’s commonly used for diseases like influenza, said Kaitlyn Sadtler, study lead for laboratory testing and chief of the biomedical institute’s immunoengineering section. “With a small finger-pick, volunteers can help scientists fight COVID-19 from their homes.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com

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