OU Medicine, OU Health Sciences Center and Oklahoma Blood Institute are collaborating on a project to determine the prevalence of Oklahoma healthcare workers who have previously been infected with the COVID-19 virus. In addition, the antibodies of those who test positive for previous infection will be analyzed for their ability to protect against future COVID-19 infection. The Oklahoma Blood Institute will offer testing through its existing partnerships with healthcare facilities across Oklahoma. Through mobile blood drives around the state or at OBI donor facilities, healthcare workers can be tested for COVID-19 antibodies while donating much-needed blood for Oklahoma’s supply. If their tests show a previous infection, they have the option of donating their plasma to be used as convalescent plasma treatment in seriously ill patients with COVID-19.
In addition, COVID-19 antibody tests will be offered on the campus of the OU Health Sciences Center to all employees of OU Medicine, OU Physicians and OU Health Sciences Center, whether or not they work in a clinical setting. In total, the study aims to test 8,000 workers at healthcare facilities in Oklahoma. Altogether, the test results should provide insight into how the state’s healthcare population has been affected.
“The virus has had a disproportionate impact on healthcare workers around the world,” said Tim VanWagoner, Ph.D., deputy director of the Oklahoma Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a campus initiative that is spearheading the project. “It makes sense for us to focus these early serological studies to better understand the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies among healthcare workers. Because a high number of individuals are asymptomatic after infection, many people are very interested in knowing whether they may have been previously exposed and might have some protection against future infections.” OU Medicine’s high-complexity laboratory will test the samples provided by OBI and others from OU employees. However, some tests will be administered using lower-complexity devices that can be used to provide rapid results in a variety of settings. The results will be compared and verified to determine whether they are as accurate as laboratory testing, VanWagoner said.
Researchers at the OU Health Sciences Center will lead investigations into the antibodies of those who were previously infected. The studies will focus on whether the antibodies have the ability to block the virus from infecting cells and, if so, the amount of antibodies needed to do so, said OU Health Sciences Center virologist James Papin, Ph.D.
“We are interested in whether antibodies made by previously infected individuals have the ability to neutralize the virus,” Papin said. “While we have some evidence that individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 possess antibodies that can protect from re-infection, what we do not know is how long those antibodies persist or if antibodies produced during asymptomatic infection can protect against re-infection. As part of the testing, we will determine the highest dilution of antibodies that can block the virus from infecting cells, as a higher dilution indicates a stronger response and thus greater chance of protection from re-infection.”
The OU Health Sciences Center is qualified to conduct these tests because of its Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory, a requirement for working with live SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Papin said. The facility includes multiple safety protocols, including extensive personal protective equipment and clean airflow that is HEPA-filtered and not re-circulated.
After this round of testing and research, the project will broaden into community settings for non-healthcare workers, which will be particularly important if infection rates continue to rise, VanWagoner said.
Because of its longstanding collaborations with Oklahoma healthcare facilities, OBI is well-positioned to gather samples from a cross-section of the state.
“OBI is excited to team with OU’s scientists to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the frontline heroes who have been caring for patients throughout the pandemic,” said John Armitage, M.D., president and CEO of Oklahoma Blood Institute. “We owe these great healthcare workers not only our respect and admiration, but our best efforts and research to protect them.”