Antibody tests helping researchers come up with answers

Medical Watch

On the Medical Watch — What happened? It’s a question researchers want to answer in communities hardest hit by COVID-19, and they have a new antibody test in hand to help them.

“In Chicago, there are huge inequities in the risk of infection and the risk of mortality for COVID-19. So African Americans are three times more likely than whites to die of infection. Latinos right now and Latinx communities the rate of infection is four times higher than predominately white neighborhoods. Why is that?” Dr. Thom McDade, Northwestern University professor of Anthropology, said.

It’s a key question motivating McDade’s research. He’s a professor of anthropologymand he and his colleagues at Northwestern Medicine want to dig up information about how COVID-19 spreads in communities across the Chicago, particularly those hardest hit. Their tool of choice? Antibody tests.

“Antibody testing is important right now because it gives us a window back in time and gives us a sense who has been exposed and where and where the virus has been and this is important right now because a lot of people are exposed to the virus and may be transmitting the virus and they don’t even know that they have it because so many cases are asymptomatic or they are very mild infections,” McDade said.

The idea is to look back at behaviors and social policies that may have impacted virus spread to make changes moving forward.

“Is it that the virus is more present in communities of color and more likely to be transmitted or is that once exposed some people are more vulnerable to a more serious case or a mortal case?” McDade said. “Not everyone has the same opportunity to shelter in place and work at home there are people who have to go out to earn a living to feed their families there are categories of essential workers outside of the healthcare industry but also in that as well and they are more likely to be exposed and bring the virus into their households and into their communities so that is another angle we are considering.”

The zip codes circled in red are areas where McDade and his team hope to deploy their antibody test.

“We use lancets that look like this. They are commonly used by people with diabetes to monitor blood sugar you just nick the finger put the blood on the paper and let it dry,” he said.

Participants send the sample back to the lab.

“This is safe to mail and safe for postal carriers to handle it comes back to us in the lab and then we do our test,” McDade said. “If you come back positive for an antibody test, that means that almost certainly you’ve been exposed to the virus and you may or may not haver exp illness despite the fact you come back positive. It does not tell us anything about your future immunity to subsequent exposures,” McDade said.

The test was developed in the lab at Northwestern. McDade said it’s based on an FDA approved protocol with high sensitivity. He hopes the study results will help communities navigate a second wave.

“The last wave, the first wave of infections, the response was to basically to shut everything down and that’s basically a sledgehammer so wouldn’t it be better to take a scalpel to that problem and to identify the more specific behaviors and policies that are most effective at preventing the transmission of the virus in the community,” he said.

McDade and his team hope to enroll 3,000 people in their study and hope to have some results by the end of summer.

For more information about the antibody study, check out scan.northwestern.edu

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