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Beaumont launches 'nation's largest' study of COVID-19 antibodies

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Beaumont Health is launching what the Southfield-based health system called Monday the country's largest study on antibodies in the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19. 

By collecting voluntary blood samples from across the eight-hospital health system's 38,000 employees and thousands of affiliates, heath system researchers hope to determine how many have COVID-19 antibodies but never reported symptoms — information needed to learn more about how the virus spreads in communities. 

Scientists at the Beaumont Research Institute want to learn whether antibodies in the blood serum of people who have recovered from COVID-19 could be used to treat those who are sick.

The health system validated the testing process and materials in its laboratories, and obtained emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration to use them in the study. 

"This is a major, major undertaking," Dr. Matthew Sims, Beaumont’s director of infectious diseases research and the principal investigator on the study, said during a Monday afternoon call with media.

"In normal times we would spend six months to a year to develop (a study) like this, and we pushed it through in about three weeks."

People who are found through testing to have been infected but never showed any symptoms may have antibodies specially capable of fighting the virus in others who are sick, Sims said.

Beaumont Health technologist Jacqueline Watson prepares COVID-19 test specimens at a laboratory.

"This is going to be able to identify a completely different group of people, who may be able to donate plasma (to sick patients)," he said. "These are people who never developed symptoms but have a large amount of antibodies. 

"Maybe their antibodies bring COVID under better control." 

Dr. Barbara Ducatman, chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital-Royal Oak, said it would be a matter of "weeks to months" before the health system would be ready to treat sick patients with plasma donated by people with strong antibodies in their blood. 

The body creates antibodies to fight infections — within three to five days in the case of the novel coronavirus. With some other kinds of infections, antibodies provide immunity to people who had the disease in the past. 

As many as 25% to 50% of people with COVID-19 might not show symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, those individuals could still spread the disease to others.

A growing number of influential physicians and scientists are getting behind an effort to use the blood of those who have recovered from COVID-19 to help others battle the deadly disease.

For more than 100 years, health care providers have used the liquid part of the blood, known as plasma, from those who have recovered from illnesses to help those stricken with the Spanish Flu, H1N1, SARS and more.

That's why a group of physicians and scientists from 57 institutions in 46 states including Michigan are hoping plasma will help prevent and treat COVID-19 — especially since there have been over 1.9 million confirmed cases and more than 118,600 deaths around the world as of Monday afternoon.

There is a massive recruitment nationally of patients who have recovered from COVID-19. The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project is asking these people to donate their plasma. Michigan had 433 confirmed cases of recovery as of Saturday, the most recent state data available.

Henry Ford Health System also is studying antibodies that are present in the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to find out whether these could be used to develop a vaccine against the virus, Dr. Steven Kalkanis,  CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group, told The Detroit News in a Friday interview. It's part of 14 COVID-19 studies underway at the Detroit-based health system. 

The Beaumont Health study is unique because of the huge number of participants they hope to recruit from a single health system, researchers there said. Much could be revealed by studying the antibodies of doctors and nurses who've been subject to constant exposure to the virus yet never became sick, Sims said. 

The health system also will test patients who were treated for severe COVID-like symptoms at Beaumont hospitals but did not test positive for the virus, he added. 

The health system expects at least 30,000 employees to sign onto the study, but the pool of potential participants includes as many at 43,000 individuals. 

The researches also will study what kind of immunity survivors have to the novel coronavirus and whether the presence of antibodies could be used to determine when people can safely return to work without risk of spreading the infection. 

“In addition to answering key questions on infection spread and the percentage of total asymptomatic cases in a community, we intend to relieve anxiety through a better understanding of the spread of the infection across Beaumont Health,” said Dr. Richard Kennedy,  vice president for research at Beaumont Health and director of the Beaumont Research Institute.  

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN