USC works with LA County on coronavirus study

Art of a coronavirus molecule outline, with the city of LA and USC inside of it on a red and yellow background.
Researchers from the Sol Price School of Public Policy, the Keck School of Medicine and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health collaborated to determine how widespread the coronavirus was within the county. (Sara Alvarado | Daily Trojan)

Last March, Dr. Neeraj Sood wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal, explaining that in order to find accurate numbers of people who were infected by and died due to the coronavirus, “testing only sick or symptomatic patients will not get us to the truth.”

This led Sood, vice dean of faculty affairs and researcher at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, to reach out to Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, to collaborate on a study that was able to provide further information regarding how widespread the coronavirus was within the county. Following this study, USC and L.A. County collaborated on another study in an effort to construct a representative cohort study within the county.  

Spearheaded by co-principal investigators Sood and Dr. Howard Hu, department chair and professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, the collaboration is also working with a private marketing firm, Lieberman Research Worldwide, focused on recruiting a diverse set of participants, representative of the county, for coronavirus antibody testing, along with spit testing to test for current viral infection. The firm finds participants by reaching out online, over the phone and by handing out physical flyers to “hard to reach populations.” 

“It’s really a three-part partnership that is going to execute this study: private, public and university,” Hu said. “It’s a unique blend.” 

Hu stated that the research team is now aiming for a cohort of 2,000 adults, and as many as 1,000 children as children were not included in the initial study Dr. Sood discussed. Currently, the research team has funding for the study to span over a four to six month period, in which two to three observations will take place. The study is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as resources from L.A. County and the University.   

“The goal is to secure funding to keep this going, as long as the pandemic is still going,” Hu said. “Luckily, the federal administration has committed all sorts of funding to really control this epidemic, and certainly, understanding some of the behavior of this epidemic is part of that plan, so this study will probably be going on for many months.” 

According to Simon, this data will provide information on the coronavirus and its progress. 

 “This study just helps paint a clearer picture of where the epidemic is and where it seems to be going, how well we’re doing with vaccinations and how much protection we’re getting with vaccinations,” Simon said. “I think it’s raised awareness in the minds of the public and of policymakers of the importance of surveillance and having good data.” 

The researchers hoped to find more information on the natural infection to the virus, herd immunity and vaccinations’ effects on people’s behavior.  The team also hoped to determine whether or not there is a distinction between those who developed natural immunity via coronavirus infection, versus immunity acquired through vaccination.

Along with more comprehensive knowledge about the spread of the virus and how it affects one’s immune system and mental health, the cohort study will also be able to answer other questions about patients’ experiences with vaccinations.   

“We want to try to answer all of those questions — what are the inequities in allocation of vaccines and, in general, the burden of disease?” Sood said. “The goal of the study is to not only answer some of the pressing questions we have right now, but to kind of set up the infrastructure to answer questions that might arise in the future.”  

The collaboration between the county and USC is a “great partnership,” Simon said, and the experience that Hu and Sood bring to the project makes the study even “stronger and more impactful.” 

“There is expertise at USC that is wonderful to be able to tap into,” Simon said. “There are really smart folks who have very specific research expertise that can be helpful.”

Furthermore, Sood said that this collaboration could provide a sense of validity to their research, allowing the general population to know that the team’s work was aligned with the department and more generally aligned with improving public health in L.A. County. 

“L.A. County is a wonderful partner for this study because the County’s Department of Public Health is staffed by some amazing professionals, and they have given us access to all sorts of resources to conduct this study,” Hu said. 

Hu hopes that this project will provide comprehensive knowledge regarding the current status of the coronavirus within Los Angeles. 

“I think that our goal is to help ourselves and particularly our colleagues at the L.A. County Department of Public Health to know where the biggest gaps are,” Hu said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Lieberman Research Worldwide as Lieberman Research West. It also didn’t include Dr. Howard Hu’s full title. He is both a professor of preventive medicine and the department chair at the Keck School of Medicine. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.