University of Georgia professor Ted Ross is hoping to gain some insight on the impact of COVID-19 antibodies — how effective they are at protecting people and for how long — with a three-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The SPARTA project, which stands for SARS2 SeroPrevalence and Respiratory Tract Assessment, is run through UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, where Ross is the director.
The goal of the study is to gain insight into whether COVID-19 antibodies protect people from reinfection, and, if they do, for how long. Ross said the results of the study are important to understanding the coronavirus more, and could help vaccine production move forward.
If COVID-19 is a recurring infection like the flu, a vaccine might need to be administered more than once. The study will also investigate the effects of vaccines once one is released, Ross said.
“Performing studies like the SPARTA study is going to be critical for advancing our understanding of developing effective vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics. There’s still a long ways to go to understanding how this virus works.”
– Ted Ross, professor of infectious diseases and director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology
Over 100 people enrolled in the study in the first two weeks, Ross said, and the goal is to have 1,000 people participating. The project is looking for Athens residents and UGA students, faculty and staff, particularly those at high risk of catching the coronavirus such as health care workers and people who work in restaurants, who are able to provide samples every two to four weeks over the next two years.
People who have had COVID-19 are especially encouraged to participate, Ross said, but anybody who meets the eligibility requirements can be involved in the study.
At their first meeting, researchers will take full blood and saliva samples to determine if participants have an active COVID-19 infection or antibodies. If they don’t have antibodies, participants go to the lab every two weeks for a mouth swab and finger stick blood test. If participants have COVID-19 antibodies, they go to the lab every month for a full blood test. Study participants are paid $30 per visit to the lab.
“We’re really interested in those people that are positive, and we will examine how well their immune cells and antibodies will neutralize the virus in a petri dish,” Ross said. “We will look to see if their antibody titers, or levels, are getting lower or higher [or] staying steady.”
Ross stressed that study participants can take breaks from the study. If students go home for the summer and aren’t able to return to Athens to get tested, they can resume participation in the study when they return for the next school year, he said.
Participants will have an update on their immune status and potential exposure to the coronavirus, Ross said. The only drawback is the time required to go to the lab, which is by the College of Veterinary Medicine, he said.
Spencer Pierce and Amanda Skarlupka both work in the CVI and are both participating in the study. Pierce stressed the need for more knowledge about the coronavirus and said he’s doing the study because he was interested in seeing if he had antibodies from a COVID-19 infection in March. Pierce said he still has antibodies, but more research is needed to see if they’re at a level that will protect him from another infection.
Skarlupka said she liked that the study was being conducted over a longer time period, and that it’s a form of surveillance testing. Participants get their test results within two to three days, and could find out if they are COVID-19 positive without experiencing symptoms. Joining the study was easy, Skarlupka said, and the lab visits don’t take long.
Ross said the CVI is working with Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center, the UGA Police Department, the Student Health Center and the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. UGA is also one of nine sites where the study is being conducted. Other locations include Los Angeles at UCLA, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and Augusta University Medical Center. UGA is receiving $2 million from the NIH for each of the three years of the study for a total of $6 million, Ross said.
“We know still very little about this virus and this disease, so performing studies like the SPARTA study is going to be critical for advancing our understanding of developing effective vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics,” Ross said. “There’s still a long ways to go to understanding how this virus works.”