UMass Amherst Study Underway to Estimate Coronavirus Exposure on Campus and Across State

Faculty, staff and students providing blood samples for antibody testing
Andrew Lover
Andrew Lover

AMHERST, MASS. – A team of University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers has launched a study to explore the rate of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) exposure on campus and throughout Massachusetts, inviting faculty, staff and students to voluntarily participate.

“The goal of our study is to increase understanding of coronavirus exposures with the UMass community and statewide,” says infectious-disease epidemiologist Andrew Lover, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who is heading up the study.

Two weeks ago, the researchers sent an email to around 22,000 UMass community members seeking volunteer participants who will provide a blood spot sample taken at home that will be tested for antibodies to the novel coronavirus. Community members who have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, as well as one of their household members, were invited to fill out a survey to determine their eligibility for the study.

Lover says about 4,500 people have filled out the survey so far, with more still coming in, and overall the response represents a good geographical balance across the state. “Not everyone was eligible, but most people were,” Lover notes. “It’s a good mix of faculty, staff and students – exactly what we were hoping for. About half have household members who will participate.”

One thousand households – 500 from faculty, staff and graduate student households, and 500 from undergraduate households across the state – will receive a test kit in the mail beginning next week. It features instructions on how to provide a few drops of blood from a finger prick and includes shipping labels and a return envelope.

“The logistics of the survey, including organizing, packing and sending out 1,000 boxes with return shipping are daunting,” says Lover, commending three graduate students in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences (Estee Cramer, Teah Snyder and Johanna Ravenhurst), and Rob Leveille and Charles Apicella of UMass Mail Services for their tireless efforts. Other key members of the research team include biostatisticians Laura Balzer and Nicholas Reich, whose COVID-19 Forecast Hub is a leading indicator of the trajectory of the coronavirus in the U.S.

In his lab, Dominique Alfandari, professor of developmental biology in the Veterinary and Animal Sciences Institute, will conduct the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to detect novel coronavirus antibodies in the blood samples.

The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies among the study participants will allow researchers to estimate the rate at which the UMass community and Massachusetts residents as a whole have been exposed to the coronavirus, even though they have not become ill or symptomatic.

Lover says he expects to find an overall exposure rate of about 5%, with perhaps 7-8% in the Boston suburbs – well below the 50-65% needed for herd immunity.

“We were hoping that a lot of places would get close to herd immunity pretty quickly, but all the data received so far is nowhere near that limit,” Lover says. “This will give us a starting point, and in the future, with further surveys, we can show how far the exposure has progressed.”

Lover, whose team has received support from the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), expects results from the study in September.