Student Health to pilot antibody study

Student Health will launch a study to test students for coronavirus antibodies, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman announced in an email to University administrators and student government Wednesday.

The study will use a randomized sample of 500 to 800 students from different demographics, including U.S. and international students. The stipulations for recruitment to the study include a minimum age of 18 and require students to reside close enough to the University Park Campus to be able to commute to the Engemann Student Health Center to be tested. Both on- and off-campus students may participate if contacted by Student Health. 

Participation in the study is open only by invitation, and the population sample will comprise solely USC students. Student Health professionals will administer the antibody tests at no cost to students, and participants will receive their individual results one to two weeks after participating, Van Orman said. 

“We’re trying to get all the specimens collected in about two weeks,” Van Orman said. “We want to turn the data around pretty quickly because we’re very interested in it from like, ‘How do we plan for next fall based on this information?’”

While the presence of antibodies has not yet been confirmed to indicate immunity, further research may help to ascertain whether contracting the coronavirus precludes an individual from a subsequent infection, Van Orman said. Currently, antibody studies are used to determine the proportion of a population that has been exposed to the virus.

“Many people are hopeful that over time, COVID-19 antibody will mean that someone might be immune to reinfection — we don’t know that yet,” Van Orman said. “We do know it may be an important part of understanding who in our community might be at risk.”

According to Van Orman, the study will help the University better determine the prevalence of coronavirus exposure of different student populations within USC, which will play a role in virus screening recommendations for students in at-risk groups. The study, which will close by May 8, may also influencempact the University’s plans for the return of students to campus and the resumption of in-person classes. 

“We know that during the spring, we had a significant number of students test positive for infection, and we also know that within young adults in particular, infections appear to be asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic,” Van Orman said. “We’re very interested in knowing what the seroprevalence of COVID-19 antibodies is in the student population.”

While several studies on the presence of antibodies have recently been conducted, the Student Health study will focus specifically on college students and their exposure to the coronavirus. The student population has a unique infection pattern because of their constant interactions within both residential and academic settings, Van Orman said.

“We’re trying to understand within a population that tends to circulate with each other, how might it have spread during the spring semester,” she said.

The announcement of the Student Health study comes after the first iteration of a study launched by Price School of Public Policy vice dean Neeraj Sood in partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health earlier this month to test L.A. County residents for the presence of coronavirus antibodies. The preliminary results of the study estimated that between 2.8 and 5.6% of adults in L.A. County have been exposed to the virus and developed antibodies.