Test kits might shorten economic shutdown

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At home finger prick could reveal if person has had virus

RALEIGH – An antibody study of a representative sample of the population is actively underway in North Carolina, led by pioneering research from experts at Wake Forest Baptist Health. The General Assembly-funded study will provide data to help legislators make decisions in the coming weeks. The funding comes from the legislature’s existing discretionary account that is used to pay for legislative operations and business.


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In support of the groundbreaking public health research, the legislature is providing $100,000 from its account to Wake Forest University to purchase and mail 1,000 at-home antibody kits to a representative sample of North Carolinians. Wake Forest Baptist Health researchers put some of the kits in the mail today.

The Wake Forest Baptist study is led by Dr. John Sanders and Dr. David Herrington in collaboration with Dr. Michael Runyon and Dr. Michael Gibbs at Atrium Health. They have worked closely with Oracle, Scanwell Health, Javara, and other health systems across the country to develop this surveillance system.

Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford epidemiologist, is also a collaborator on the study.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said, “This groundbreaking Wake Forest Baptist Health study, led by Dr. John Sanders, will fill a critical data gap that’s been missing for many weeks, and will help us learn if the true situation is better or worse than the models project. Nobody knows the true hospitalization and fatality rates for this virus, even as the government has ordered a full-scale economic shutdown.”

Dr. Sanders said: “Wake Forest Baptist Health and Atrium Health are leading the way in pioneering a representative sample antibody study. Coupled with state-of-the-art syndromic surveillance and in collaboration with leading healthcare providers and companies, our work will help fill a data gap that has existed since the start of the pandemic. I’m grateful to the North Carolina legislature for providing us with up-front funding so we can begin this critical project.”

Researchers have identified early study participants through Wake Forest Baptist’s patient platform. The sample will be statistically representative of the larger population.

Participants in a subset of the main study will use an at-home antibody test kit to prick their finger, and the test will use a drop of blood to identify whether it contains COVID-19 antibodies. If antibodies are present, it would signal with a high probability that the person has already had the virus. Much like a political opinion poll, researchers will use the proportion of people in the representative sample who have antibodies to extrapolate the prevalence of immunity to the larger population.

The 1,000 test kits are provided by Scanwell Health, a Los Angeles-based digital health company focused on smartphone-enabled, at-home diagnostics.

Researchers will provide participants with at-home antibody test kits every month for one year to track the virus and population immunity over time.

Antibodies can generally be detected in a person’s blood 14 days after the start of symptoms, which means the data collected through this study will be a lagging indicator of the virus’s prevalence in the population. It will provide a much broader understanding of the true hospitalization and fatality rates than presently exists.

Models predicting hospital capacity problems and fatalities have been built on guesses and undergone constant revision.

Without clearer data-driven evidence to support the continued economic shutdown, fewer and fewer people will comply with government orders over time. If the situation is as bad or worse than projected, then this data will instill confidence in government decisions and increase compliance, which would be necessary for an effective public health strategy.

If the data shows the situation is better than projected, then we can have confidence that unwinding the economic shutdown can be done safely.

The study will couple antibody testing with near-real-time syndromic surveillance through a platform developed by Oracle. The syndromic surveillance will provide public health authorities with data on patients presenting with symptoms at participating health care facilities. It will help identify emerging hot-spots almost instantly.

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