Berkeley Public Health launches new study to determine true spread of SARS-CoV-2 infections

The largest community-based sampling in the Bay Area to identify and test asymptomatic individuals.

A team of researchers at UC Berkeley School of Public Health are launching a new study to better understand the current spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infection in the Bay Area and the effect of social mitigation strategies. Funded by Open Philanthropy, Emergent Ventures, and Berkeley Public Health, and with support from the Innovative Genomics Institute and CZ Biohub, researchers will identify and test asymptomatic individuals to determine how many are currently or have previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2, which will help guide strategies to end the pandemic.

Public health officials and researchers recognize that the best weapon to stop the spread of coronavirus is to identify and isolate people who are infected, while employing measures such as social distancing. However, according to the CDC, as many as 25 percent of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 may be asymptomatic, or show no symptoms, which is contributing to the spread of viral infection and COVID-19 cases. There is a dearth of data on asymptomatic infections, particularly in potential high-risk areas like the Bay Area, and these data are desperately needed in order to stop transmission.

Dr. Lisa Barcellos, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and Dr. Eva Harris, Professor of Infectious Diseases, are leading a research team employing epidemiologic, molecular and serologic approaches to fill this critical data gap by detecting both current SARS-CoV-2 infection and previous infection in asymptomatic individuals.

“Our research is the first study in the Bay Area to identify and test a large, representative  population of asymptomatic individuals, which will provide much-needed insight into transmission dynamics, the true extent of the community spread, and risk factors for infection beyond those tested for COVID-19 at hospitals and clinics,” said Lisa Barcellos.

UC Berkeley researchers will recruit at least 5,000 healthy, adult volunteers from a much larger sample of multiple communities across the East Bay. Through saliva, swab and blood samples and questionnaires regarding personal health and social characteristics, researchers will learn how and to what extent SARS-CoV-2 spreads in the community, what determines asymptomatic or symptomatic infection, and who may be most susceptible. Ultimately, the goal of this research will help guide strategies to end this pandemic.

“As the state and federal government look closely at ways for people to return to work and resume their lives, having large, community-based data on asymptomatic individuals will be absolutely essential for evaluating the effect of modifying social mitigation strategies,” said Eva Harris.

The study will begin in early May, and rounds of testing will continue for up to eight months. The results will also be applied to modeling used to predict the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to Lisa Barcellos and Eva Harris, the research team includes: Josefina Coloma, William Dow, Nicholas Jewell and Joseph Lewnard of Berkeley Public Health, and Patrick Hsu of UC Berkeley College of Engineering.