Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has launched a study to try and answer three key questions about the COVID-19 pandemic:
CovidWatch will enroll volunteers who are at high risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus, including health care workers, employees of long-term care facilities and hospitals, first responders, grocery store employees and bus drivers. Researchers will follow the volunteers for six months through regular nasal swabs and blood draws.
The results could help illuminate just how widely the novel coronavirus has spread undetected and how, exactly, the human immune system responds to infection, said Dr. Michael Boeckh, head of the Infectious Disease Sciences Program at Fred Hutch and the study's lead investigator.
“This study will address some really important knowledge gaps that will help inform how we as a society can get back to work,” Boeckh said.
Study participants will be asked to collect and mail weekly nasal swabs regardless of clinical symptoms. Once a month, they will use a novel home blood collection device to collect and send in a small blood sample, which will be analyzed for immune responses to the virus.
Following the volunteers over time is key, Boeckh said. That serial look will help scientists chart the progression of disease. It’s currently not well understood if most, or all, infections start without symptoms and patients only gradually start to exhibit signs like cough and fever. The regular swabs will let researchers track that evolution through viral “loads,” or how much virus can be detected in a patient’s body.
The monthly blood tests will be used to measure how the body develops antibodies to protect against the virus. This could help answer one of the biggest mysteries of all: Once a COVID-19 patient recovers from the disease, are they now immune?
That’s true for most infectious diseases. But no one knows whether that’s true with COVID-19. And even if patients are immune, scientists want to know how complete and long-lasting that protection would be.
As the study unfolds, the researchers plan to share their findings regularly. Boeckh, who has studied respiratory viruses for two decades, said the explosion of "open science" has been one bright spot amid the pandemic.
“The level of cooperation and community engagement is enormous,” he said. “People see this affects the entire society and are eager to help support the researchers trying to find solutions. We all have a stake in this.”
Amazon is supporting CovidWatch through funding, collaboration on the study design, and technical expertise and web hosting from Amazon Web Services.
Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.
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