RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The latest data from a study in North Carolina being led by Dr. John Sanders at Wake Forest Baptist Health has found 12 to 15 percent of people tested have been positive for COVID-19 antibodies, meaning those people have been exposed to the virus.
Sanders said most of the 18,859 people participating in the study have shown little or no symptoms.
“It’s certainly consistent with some other data that are coming out from CDC,” he said Tuesday. “Like most things in life, it’s a double-edged sword.”
Sanders began work on the study earlier this year in partnership with Atrium Health and with funding from the General Assembly. He said additional hospitals are joining to help provide more data from across the state, including WakeMed, Vidant Health, and New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
So far, the study participants are primarily in the Triad region.
Sanders said the study has shown that COVID-19 is more widespread than diagnostic testing indicates. While diagnostic tests are done to determine whether someone is infected with COVID-19, antibody tests show whether a person has been infected previously and has developed antibodies. The CDC said it can take one to three weeks after infection for a person to develop antibodies.
When the study began in the spring, he said less than 1 percent of antibody tests were coming back positive.
“There’s a ton of responsibility on each of us every day to act like we’re infected, to distance from other people, wear masks,” he said. “Even though it may not be as severe as the worst projections, it is clearly being spread by people who are not severely ill.”
As part of the study, some of the participants receive kits at home which they use to prick their fingers and send a sample back. Sanders said volunteers share whether they’ve been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
“When we see typically the death rate is 2 to 4 percent, that’s really looking at people who are confirmed to have COVID because they’re coming in with symptoms, and they’re being virologically diagnosed. If you extrapolate to our data, then the death rate is ten times lower than those estimates,” Sanders said.
Dr. Bill Lagarde, a pediatric endocrinologist at WakeMed, said as WakeMed becomes a partner in the study, it will look to enroll volunteers in the next four to eight weeks.
This will help add people from Burlington to Wilson into the study group, with a particular focus on Wake and Johnston counties, he said.
“It also allows you to look at regional difference in infection rates or behavior of the disease,” Lagarde said.
Sanders said Wake Forest Baptist Health is partnering with hospitals in other parts of the country as well, including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. He said the CDC awarded a two-year, $55 million contract for this research, with that funding being distributed to participating agencies. The General Assembly also included $20 million for Wake Forest’s antibody research in the COVID-19 relief bill that passed earlier this year.
Sanders said it’s still unclear what degree of immunity people have once they develop COVID-19 antibodies.
“We’ve not seen enough repeat infections for us to make any comments about that in our study,” he said. “And the CDC and others are very interested in trying to get to the bottom of that. But, right now we just don’t know.”
Sanders said part of his research has also included looking at the validity of the tests being used in the study. He said Syntron manufactured the tests that have been used so far. The National Cancer Institute has conducted validation testing. He said that revealed more people participating in the study might have developed antibodies than the tests were showing. Going forward, he said the study won’t use that version of the Syntron antibody test.
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