UC Berkeley scientists launch new coronavirus antibody test

A U.C. Berkeley research team is launching an antibody study this week that aims to answer key questions about how widespread the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is in the Bay Area and how long it has been here.

On Wednesday, the research team spent hours packing the study's test kits. Cardboard boxes ready to be mailed out, were stacked high inside the lab of U.C. Berkeley Professor Lisa Barcellos, an expert in epidemiology and bio-statistics at the School of Public Health. Barcellos is co-director of the study with Professor Eva Harris, an infectious disease specialist.

In phase one of the study, the research team is reaching out to thousands of Bay Area households with a questionnaire in English and Spanish.

"We're asking all about current symptoms, past symptoms and going back as far as December. We're asking about travel histories. We're asking about who's in the household and what they've been exposed to," said Prof. Barcellos.

Invitations to participate were mailed out this week and are expected to arrive on Friday.

"Essentially sent 307,000 mailers to every single home, every household in the census track in eleven cities," said Professor Harris.

Those eleven cities are all in the East Bay and include: Hercules, Pinole, El Sobrante, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Kensington, Berkeley, Albay, Emeryville, and Oakland.

Professor Harris says it was important to design the study so the data is collected through a representative sampling.

The team says about 5,000 to 6,000 of the questionnaire respondents will be selected randomly, to avoid any bias, for phase two of the study.

That phase two subgroup will be tested for the new coronavirus, as well as for antibodies through saliva, swab and blood samples.

"The in-home collection kits include all the materials that someone needs needed to collect saliva, as well as an oral and nasal swab," said Professor Barcellos, adding that small lancets will also be used to collect blood samples.

"It's really very straightforward and doesn't hurt at all," said Professor Harris, who demonstrated how the finger-prick allows participants to put a small drop of blood on a paper filter to be sent to the labs.

Professor Harris says samples will be collected once every six weeks for 10 months.

"And that will allow us to see the changes in the antibody levels, that means the exposure that people might have had at intervals over this whole period," said Professor Harris.

The study could also track how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading in the community as California lifts stay-at-home orders.

"As we back out of shelter in place and there are changes to the mitigation strategies, we will be able to detect the effect of those changes," said Harris.

The researchers say as they get the data, they plan to post results online by zip code so the public can see the progression of the coronavirus infections.