Arizonans Helping Researchers Better Understand COVID-19

A new antibody testing study examining samples originally collected through the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program found evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infections in five states earlier than initially reported.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University led the study that analyzed more than 24,000 stored blood samples contributed between Jan. 2 and March 18, 2020, by All of Us program participants in all 50 states. Researchers detected antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in nine participants’ samples. Positive samples came as early as Jan. 7 from Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, outside the areas originally believed to be the entrance points in the U.S. Most positive samples were collected prior to the first reported cases in those states, demonstrating the importance of expanding testing as quickly as possible in an epidemic setting.

Antibodies are proteins produced in the blood in response to an infection, such as a virus. They play a critical role in fighting infections and are helpful signs that a person may have been exposed to an infection in the past, even if they didn’t show symptoms. In the All of Us study, researchers looked in participant samples for a type of antibodies called IgG, which do not appear until about two weeks after a person has been infected, indicating that participants with these antibodies were exposed to the virus at least several weeks before their sample was taken. In this study, the first positive samples came from participants in Illinois and Massachusetts on Jan. 7 and 8, 2020, respectively, suggesting that the virus was present in those states in late December.

“Science, by doing constant research through programs such as All of Us, gives us the hard evidence that this virus was here in December,” says Sairam Parthasarathy, MD, Chief of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine and director of Banner Health’s Center for Sleep Disorders, who was not involved in the study.

UArizona-Banner, which operates All of Us in Arizona and Northern Colorado, is currently the highest participating consortium in the country with more than 42,000 participants in the program. These volunteers can help support advancing medical research in the state and beyond by having their de-identified personal health information available to local researchers through the All of Us Researcher Workbench.

“Thanks to the growing number of research volunteers in the All of Us Research Program and the collaborative efforts of so many people throughout the country, researchers will be able to tackle a wide range of important health problems, investigate the impact of individual differences on a person’s risk, and have the broadest possible impact,” said Eric Reiman, MD, CEO of Banner Research and one of the leaders of the UArizona-Banner All of Us Research Program. “The COVID findings described in this study are just the beginning.”

Throughout the pandemic, All of Us engaged participants in COVID-19 research through the COVID Participant Experience (COPE) surveys, which gauged mental health during the pandemic and continues its COVID-19 research with participants now with the new Minute Survey. The voluntary survey asks participants if they are or plan to get vaccinated, and if not, to provide feedback on the reasons for opting not to receive the vaccine. Finding out who, when and why participants get vaccinated—or don’t—will help researchers understand the impact of vaccination on helping control the spread of the disease as well as the barriers that exist for some people around getting vaccinated.

“Social determinants of health drive who is most affected by the pandemic. Often, your zip code is the biggest of those as it underscores how some communities, whether ethnic, minority or just not as well off, bear a disproportionate health care access burden when it comes to crises like COVID-19,” said Dr. Parthasarathy, who also is the principal investigator for the National Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) program in Arizona. “Our goal is to remedy that by promoting better health literacy and more equitable participation in research, clinical trials and access to care, including vaccines.”

The CEAL program, funded by a $12 million award from the National Institutes of Health, aims to increase COVID-19 education among communities who have been disproportionately affected by the disease through community-engaged research, including intervention studies and clinical trials, and outreach. Similar to the All of Us participant surveys, CEAL research, on which UArizona and Banner also partner, is designed to gain a better understanding of the COVID-19 testing, prevention and vaccination concerns of Arizona’s Latinx, Native American, and African American communities in order to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and improve health outcomes.

The mission of the All of Us Research Program is to accelerate health research and medical breakthroughs, enabling individualized prevention, treatment, and care for all of us. The program will partner with one million or more people across the United States to build the most diverse biomedical data resource of its kind, to help researchers gain better insights into the biological, environmental, and behavioral factors that influence health.

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