New study will track workers at high risk for coronavirus

Volunteers to provide regular samples to help close knowledge gaps in how COVID-19 spreads undetected
A paramedic assists a coronavirus patient
CovidWatch will study workers like paramedics who are at high risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has launched a study to try and answer three key questions about the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • What is the true infection rate in the population?
  • How long can people shed the virus?
  • Can people be re-infected? 

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.  

Interested in joining CovidWatch?

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. 

Image of the CovidWatch homepage
Click the image to visit the CovidWatch homepage.

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.

Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guest! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email us at

Related News

All news
Seattle area COVID-19 tests show infections declining Trends in coronavirus test results suggest social distancing is working April 15, 2020
Hutch team hunts for coronavirus antibodies Screening blood from survivors to find immune proteins for treatments and guide vaccine research April 2, 2020
What's with the spikes? Those structures that give coronavirus its name might be SARS-CoV-2’s weak point April 3, 2020

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.