Researchers hope to learn more about coronavirus epidemic by studying frontline health care workers

April 15, 2020
Doctor Meissner sitting at computer, looking at the screen
Dr. Eric Meissner is the principal investigator on a new research study centered on hundreds of MUSC's own health care workers. Photo by Sarah Pack

Researchers at MUSC are now looking to their own colleagues in the hopes of learning more about the novel coronavirus epidemic. 

Eric Meissner, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the College of Medicine's Division of Infectious Diseases, is the principal investigator for a study starting this week that focuses on MUSC’s very own frontline heath care workers and their immune responses to potential virus exposure. The hope is to enroll up to 440 employees – 340 of whom either work in emergency medicine or at the West Ashley specimen collection site or those who might have provided care to a patient who was infected – and 100 who are not involved in direct patient care.

Craig Crosson, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research in the College of Medicine, who is working with Meissner on the study, explained its purpose. 

“When people are infected with a virus, they develop an immune response. That’s what allows you to fight the virus off. That’s what we’ll be looking at here.”

The study will use a point-of-care serologic test, a blood-based test that can be used to suggest whether people have been exposed to a particular pathogen by looking at their immune response. The way it will work is enrollees will be mailed a kit that allows them to prick their finger, draw blood and then mix it with a reagent and apply it to a test strip. They will then use their cellphones to take pictures of their results and upload them to a secure site. 

“The interpretation of the result is simple, like reading a pregnancy test,” Meissner said. 

A close-up look at the blood testing kit, showing a box with packets and vials 
A detailed look at the kits being mailed to participants. Provided by RayBiotech

Once every 30 days, for up to four months, the participants will do this same type of finger prick. Researchers will observe the data in real-time, to see how numbers change over time.

Right now, Meissner and team are using a test developed by RayBiotech, which is FDA approved for marketing and research but not for clinical use. 

“There are many of these kinds of tests becoming available out there, and none of the currently available ones are perfect. But because of the severity of the epidemic, the criteria for approval for marketing by the FDA has been accelerated to allow researchers to try to understand the epidemic better,” Meissner said.

The catch with this kit, Meissner warned, is that it hasn’t been tested to see if it will react to other coronaviruses that are present in the community, so there is a chance it could produce a false positive result. As a result, his team is cautioning those enrolling not to make any health-related or life decisions based on the outcomes. 

“We wanted to get started on this seroprevalence study as quickly as we could, using currently available materials, and we chose this product based on its availability and ability to be used as a point-of-care test,” Meissner said. “We hope that better validated serologic tests that can be used clinically will be available soon.”

The team hopes its findings will help to identify changes in antibodies over time in this group, which will help to contribute to a greater understanding of the virus and how we can better combat it. 

“The more we know about how a healthy body responds to the virus, the better our understanding of the virus will become. This is just one step in the fight, but it’s an important one,” Crosson said.