A key question in the COVID-19 pandemic — Do people develop immunity after recovering from the disease, and for how long? — will be the subject of a $5 million study the University of Rochester Medical Center is launching.
The study could help inform decisions on development and use of vaccines, and on how or when to reopen commercial activity.
Funding for the study comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes for Health.
The university on Thursday announced the study, which will be led by David Topham, a microbiology and immunology professor who directs the New York Influenza Center for Excellence at URMC; Dr. Angela Branche, a professor and physician specializing in infections diseases; and Dr. Ann Falsey, a professor and physician specializing in infectious diseases.
“This research will seek to answer several important questions, including the durability of immunity from the virus once a person has been infected and recovered, whether the virus is mutating, whether previous exposure to other seasonal coronaviruses provides a degree of protection from COVID-19, and how long potential vaccines could provide immunity from the virus,” Topham said.
Branche, at a press conference Thursday afternoon, said the study will recruit 100 local volunteers: “People who have been infected, even if as far back as a month, people who are currently infected and people who are suspicious they might be infected. We’re also looking for people who have been exposed, living in a household with someone known to be infected.”
Besides looking at how natural immunity may work, the study will try to identify how people who are infected but have no symptoms infect others. The researchers hope to have results from the study within a few months, coming out as the first vaccines are developed, so they can compare what they learn about natural immunity to immunity created by the new vaccines.
Topham said Rochester is an ideal spot to study this subject because of the medical center’s many years of experience in the study of infectious respiratory diseases and immune responses to them. He said a study protocol previously used for an influenza study will be used because it will be faster than developing and getting a new one just for COVID-19.
‘We’re ready to go. We have the infrastructure,” Topham said. “We do annual influenza studies every year. We can move much faster than many places.”
Branche added that the community is also used to stepping up as research subjects; when influenza studies are launched, the medical center sometimes gets as many 100 calls a day from volunteers. But even if only 10 people step up, a thorough assessment of how natural immunity developed in them will be useful to the medical community, she said.
“Patient one called us and said, ‘Can you use me in some way?’ I think that just speaks to the community and our ties to the community,” Branche said.
Because the infection is so new in humans — the oldest known cases are about three months old, and the oldest Rochester case is a month old — the study will be developing information in real time, Branche said. The researchers expect to start enrolling people in the study as soon as this week, she said.
Volunteers for the study can get more information by calling (585) 273-3990 or sign up by visiting https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/covid-19-observational-research-study.aspx.
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