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Historic COVID-19 study to focus on first responders and their families

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First responders in Columbus, Ohio, are about to attack COVID-19 from a new angle, by helping researchers gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the virus.

Researchers at Ohio State’s College of Medicine and the Wexner Medical Center were awarded a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Cancer Institute in the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of COVID-19 on first responders and members of their households. The grant has funded the Center for Serological Testing to Improve Outcomes from Pandemic COVID-19 (STOP-COVID).

The study will help researchers understand many issues with COVID-19, such as transmission, immunity and communication behaviors, including around both testing and vaccinations.

In many ways it’s a historic study. Here’s why:

  1. It’s an ideal group to study.

    In collaboration with Columbus Fire and Police departments, researchers will observe about 1,000 first responders and their family members, adding about 1,500 household contacts to the study.

    First responders are an ideal cohort to be studied, according to Gene Oltz, chair of the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity and lead co-principal investigator, because of their risk of exposure and re-exposure. They’ll also be among the first in line to receive vaccines.

    Their household contacts provide an incredible opportunity to extend this research as well because few, if any, studies have looked at household transmission of COVID-19, according to Oltz.

    “Household contacts of first responders are important to include because they provide a unique opportunity to look at the natural history of infections and risk factors for infectiousness and susceptibility,” Oltz said during the Infectious Diseases Institute COVID-19 Symposium.

  2. It’s a multidisciplinary, national effort.

    The study is expansive and includes 46 investigators from five schools across Ohio State. The principal investigators alone represent the swath of disciplines involved, including Oltz, Ann Scheck McAlearney, Ashish Panchal and Linda Saif.

    “One of the silver linings for me is I’ve met all these great scientists and clinicians at Ohio State that I might otherwise not have,” Oltz said. “We already knew the collaborative spirit was here at Ohio State, but I think it’ll be even stronger once the storm has passed. That’s true even at the national and international levels.”

    The STOP-COVID Center will be integrated with the National Cancer Institute’s Serological Sciences Network (SeroNet). That consists of eight national centers and 10 other projects studying different aspects of COVID-19.

    These centers will develop a framework for sharing data, samples and investigative procedures with each other and, eventually, with outside entities who want to use the work for their own research.

  1. Three projects will provide many answers.

    STOP-COVID researchers are embarking on three projects: surveillance, serological sciences (studying blood serum and the response of the immune system to pathogens) and communication about testing and vaccines.

    • The first project will regularly test asymptomatic participants for the virus and antibodies. Anyone who tests positive will be selected for deeper serological studies. Symptomatic individuals and their household members will be tested frequently, and the progression of the disease will be recorded. Researchers will look at immune responses, disease protection and clinical outcomes.
      “This affords a level of contact tracing and documentation not available in the general population,” Oltz said.
    • The second project will study what determines the severity of COVID-19’s impact, immune protection and factors linked to immune protection, such as vaccines and antibodies. It also will examine if antibodies from the “common cold” coronavirus could protect people from more severe outcomes or if, instead, antibodies make the disease worse.
    • The third project will identify ways to improve communication efforts for the public’s understanding of risk, transmission and protection. It also will attempt to reduce access barriers to testing and vaccination.