July 14, 2020

Mayo Clinic COVID-19 research news

By Susan Murphy

By Dana Sparks

Contact tracing and COVID-19: What is it and how does it work?

I've heard about contact tracing being done during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is it and how does it work?

Answer: Contact tracing is a tool that can help slow the spread of infectious diseases, such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In communities using contact tracing, clinics, labs and hospitals send the names of people who have recently been diagnosed with COVID-19 to their local health department.

The health department asks each person with COVID-19 about people with whom they've recently had close contact. Health department officials then quickly (usually within 24 hours) alert people who are close contacts that they may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Officials don't share the name of the person who may have exposed them. This makes the contact tracing process anonymous and confidential.

The sooner health officials can alert close contacts, the lower the risk of the COVID-19 virus spreading further. But not all health departments have enough staff to do contact tracing. Some areas are researching and experimenting with contact tracing apps that can be used. They also research how they can maintain and protect the privacy of individuals who use the apps. The hope is these apps can make it faster and easier to find and notify people who've been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Read more.

How do COVID-19 antibody tests differ from diagnostic tests?

I've heard about new antibody testing for COVID-19. What is antibody testing? Is it the same as testing to diagnose COVID-19?

Answer: With all the talk about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing in the news, it's not surprising that there's confusion about tests and how they differ. Antibody testing determines whether you had COVID-19 in the past and now have antibodies against the virus. A test to diagnose COVID-19 determines if you currently have the disease. Here's what you need to know about testing.

When is antibody testing done and why is it important?

Antibody testing, also known as serology testing, is done after full recovery from COVID-19. Eligibility may vary, depending on the availability of tests. A health care professional takes a blood sample, usually by a finger prick or by drawing blood from a vein in the arm. Then the sample is tested to determine whether you've developed antibodies against the virus. The immune system produces these antibodies — proteins that are critical for fighting and clearing out the virus.

If test results show that you have antibodies, it indicates that you were likely infected with COVID-19 at some time in the past. It may also mean that you have some immunity. But the World Health Organization cautions that there's a lack of evidence on whether having antibodies means you're protected against reinfection with COVID-19. The level of immunity and how long immunity lasts are not yet known. Ongoing studies will eventually reveal more data on this.

The timing and type of antibody test affects accuracy. If you have testing too early in the course of infection, when the immune response is still building up in your body, the test may not detect antibodies, so you may have to wait several days to get tested. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized and verified certain antibody tests, but many tests with questionable accuracy are now on the market.

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Get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines

A vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is perhaps the best hope for ending the pandemic. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus, but researchers are racing to create one.

Coronavirus vaccine research

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). COVID-19 is caused by a virus that's closely related to the one that causes SARS. For this reason, scientists named the new virus SARS-CoV-2.

While vaccine development can take years, researchers aren't starting from scratch to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Past research on SARS and MERS vaccines has identified potential approaches.

Coronaviruses have a spike-like structure on their surface called an S protein. (The spikes create the corona-like, or crown-like, appearance that gives the viruses their name.) The S protein attaches to the surface of human cells. A vaccine that targets this protein would prevent it from binding to human cells and stop the virus from reproducing.

Coronavirus vaccine challenges

Past research on vaccines for coronaviruses has also identified some challenges to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, including:

  • Ensuring vaccine safety. Several vaccines for SARS have been tested in animals. Most of the vaccines improved the animals' survival but didn't prevent infection. Some vaccines also caused complications, such as lung damage. A COVID-19 vaccine will need to be thoroughly tested to make sure it's safe for humans.
  • Providing long-term protection. After infection with coronaviruses, re-infection with the same virus — though usually mild and only happening in a fraction of people — is possible after a period of months or years. An effective COVID-19 vaccine will need to provide people with long-term infection protection.
  • Protecting older people. People older than age 50 are at higher risk of severe COVID-19. But older people usually don't respond to vaccines as well as younger people. An ideal COVID-19 vaccine would work well for this age group.

Read more.

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