UAMS begins antibody testing to determine how many Arkansans have contracted COVID-19

July 6-12, 2020

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has developed and begun new COVID-19 testing in Arkansas to more accurately determine the number of people that have contracted the novel coronavirus. 


The funds for the project are part of $3.3 million in federal coronavirus aid allocated by the Arkansas Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Steering Committee, which was created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 30. That 15-person task was developed by the governor to identify the needs of the state and make recommendations for the best use of federal CARES Act dollars, which included $150 billion in emergency relief to Arkansas and other states.


The Arkansas COVID-19 research project will get underway nearly three months after the National Institutes of Health began recruiting adults across the U.S. without a confirmed history of SARS-CoV-2 to see if they have antibodies to the virus.


The presence of antibodies in the blood indicates a prior infection. In the NIH “serosurvey” that began in April, researchers planned to collect and analyze blood samples from as many as 10,000 volunteers to provide critical data for epidemiological models. The results will help illuminate the extent to which the novel coronavirus has spread undetected in the United States and provide insights into which communities and populations are most affected.


The NIH study will be conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), with additional support from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), all parts of NIH.


“This study will give us a clearer picture of the true magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States by telling us how many people in different communities have been infected without knowing it, because they had a very mild, undocumented illness or did not access testing while they were sick,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director. “These crucial data will help us measure the impact of our public health efforts now and guide our COVID-19 response moving forward.”


As part of the Arkansas’ high-accuracy antibody testing to determine the magnitude of COVID-19 infection in the state, UAMS will collect blood samples from nearly 7,500 Arkansas adults and children through October. By early August, a robotic-assisted immunoassay machine will enable processing of 2,500 samples per day for workplace, school and other community settings. UAMS researchers are now processing only up to 180 samples per day by hand.


Unlike diagnostic tests, COVID-19 antibody testing looks back into the immune system’s history, UAMS officials said. A positive antibody test means the person was exposed to the virus and developed antibodies against the virus. It will give state leaders a good idea how many Arkansans have been infected with the virus since it first came to the state, even if they did not become ill or have symptoms.


“It will be critical for policymakers to estimate how many Arkansans have been previously infected as they consider reopening schools, allowing mass gatherings, and keeping workplaces safe,” said UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson.


“As much as we may want to, we know we can’t test everyone with the antibody test right now, but we can design a program that will give us an estimate of how many Arkansans have had COVID-19,” added Dr. Laura James, director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute.


Meanwhile, seroprevalence is the proportion of people in a population whose blood serum tests positive for a disease. There are two components to the UAMS antibody research, including a laboratory component and a statewide epidemiology module.


The lab component was initiated in early March by Dr. Josh Kennedy, associate professor at UAMS’ College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. Karl Boehme, Ph.D., and Craig Forrest, Ph.D., both associate professors in the university’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will assist Kennedy in the study and have developed and validated the high-accuracy antibody test using components provided by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.


Florian Krammer, Ph.D., a microbiology colleague New York university, has provide blood samples that Kennedy’s team acquired, UAMS official said.


“This vital research would not have been possible without their collaboration and original laboratory science,” said James, also associate vice chancellor for Clinical and Translational Research.


That research hallmark inspired leaders across UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital to come together in support of the statewide COVID-19 antibody project. The epidemiology component of the study, led by the UAMS College of Public Health, will utilize the contact tracing call center to enroll study participants and collect health histories and blood samples from individuals who represent the entire state. It will provide the first results about the prevalence of asymptomatic Arkansans.


“Providing accurate estimates is vitally important in helping policymakers plan for implementing protective and treatment measures in Arkansas,” said Mark Williams, Ph.D., at the UAMS College of Public Health. “Without this information, public health officials are just guessing, and there is a chance they will guess wrong.”


The epidemiology component is being led by Williams and Benjamin Amick, Ph.D., associate dean for research. Key College of Public Health team members are epidemiologists Wendy Nembhard, Ph.D., Victor Cardenas, M.D., Ph.D., and Lori Fischbach, Ph.D., and biostatistician James Selig, Ph.D.


Significant UAMS guidance and resources have also come from Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Research and Innovation, and Stephanie Gardner, Ed.D., Pharm.D., provost, chief academic officer and chief strategy officer.


Other collaborators and support have come from the Translational Research Institute’s Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, including its informatics core, led by Fred Prior, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics in the College of Medicine. Other collaborators from the College of Medicine include Erika Olgaard, M.D., assistant professor, Department of Pathology, and Jeff Moran, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, who will oversee the robotic component of the study; and Jessica Snowden, M.D., associate professor, Department of Pediatrics, will oversee the pediatric component.


“This is truly a team science effort involving the expertise of diverse but complimentary experts who have come together to develop a solution to address COVID-19 in Arkansas,” said James.


The UAMS antibody test requires a small amount of blood, although more than a pin prick. Its validity testing shows it is not fooled by antibodies for other coronaviruses. Boehme said the antibody testing will serve as a springboard for researchers to answer deeper questions about COVID-19 in other studies.


“For other coronaviruses, the antibody response may wane after a year or two,” Boehme said. “The duration of immunity has implications for a vaccine; will the vaccine be effective for life or will it be a yearly vaccine like with the flu?”