LA Antibody Study Will Try To Determine Extent Of Coronavirus Spread

An electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (orange), the virus that causes COVID-19. (NIAID-RML)

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To get to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, we need a better sense of how far it's spread and how deadly it really is.

That's why researchers with USC and L.A. County launched a study Friday to test a demographically-representative group of 1,000 Angelenos for COVID-19 antibodies.

"The test that's being done right now to diagnose people is to determine if the virus is present," LA County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis told us on Thursday. "This one will determine whether the body has built up some defense to the virus."

The antibodies show up in your blood a few days after infection. By searching them out, this test will give us a much better picture of who's gotten the coronavirus in L.A. — including those who never got sick.


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"That information is needed, because right now, we are making decisions about this disease based not on real data or evidence, but based on worst case scenarios from mathematical models," said USC Professor Dr. Neeraj Sood, who's leading the study along with officials from the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

With this data, Sood said it's likely that the county's COVID-19 mortality rate will go down from the 2.8% it's at now. That's because there might be a lot of people who were infected, never got tested, and then recovered.

There's another big reason to test for antibodies: Based on what we know now, people who have them are at much lower risk for reinfection, even if the risk isn't zero.

An emerging possible treatment that relies on blood plasma from people who have recovered from the disease could also get a boost from this study.

"Doing antibody testing at scale can identify potential donors for this treatment, which will in turn help people who are suffering from COVID," Sood said.

Governor Newsom has said repeatedly that testing more people will help officials figure out when the stay at home order might be lifted.

Researchers hope to have their initial findings ready in about a week. They want to repeat the study every two weeks for the next three months.