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Early results of UVM research tracking COVID’s spread in Vermont

Published: Jul. 17, 2020 at 5:55 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 9:13 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - We’re getting an early look at new UVM research tracking COVID-19′s spread in Vermont. Our Cat Viglienzoni tells you what scientists have discovered so far and why they want the state to work with them.

At the UVM Larner College of Medicine, health economist Eline van den Broek-Altenburg sees their work as a way for state officials to track how COVID-19 spread in Vermont.

“I think that this provides a great opportunity for them,” van den Broek-Altenburg said.

But right now, they only have a snapshot. At the end of June they took nasal swabs and blood samples from about 500 Chittenden County residents who had previously taken part in an online survey. They analyzed those samples for traces of active virus and antibodies to indicate past infection.

Ten of their study participants had COVID-19 antibodies, or 2.2%, meaning they’d been exposed to the virus at some point. Using that data, they estimate that 3,621 people in the state’s largest county had the virus. The state has only confirmed 662 in Chittenden County. That’s why van den Broek-Altenburg says the state should work with them to expand the study’s reach and see what the experience was in the rest of Vermont.

“If we had just twice the sample size, we’d be able to draw more conclusions about what’s going on, and then also potentially do it statewide,” van den Broek-Altenburg said.

At $68 a pop they know large-scale antibody testing is expensive. But UVM immunologist and associate professor Sean Diehl’s lab has a cheaper solution.

“We’ve been to implement really rapidly a very robust and accurate serology test right here at UVM,” Diehl said.

His lab has worked on diseases like dengue fever and Zika, and in March pivoted to focus on COVID-19, developing an open-source serology test that costs just $2-$4. And he says it is just as accurate as the Mayo Clinic’s if not more.

"There was 100% overlap with the samples that Mayo found. And we found all those as well. Additionally, we found a few more," Diehl said.

Both of them are excited by what the college of medicine's research could mean for the state's ability to do large-scale serology testing. But I found out Vermont has no plans to do it yet. State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso says she'd love to have a random serology sample of the population but it's not their focus right now.

"We honestly just haven't had the resources to stand up that kind of a study given the challenges of the PCR testing and contact tracing that we've been focused on. So I would love to have that data, we simply don't have it," Kelso said.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also told me on Friday that the state has been considering a larger-scale study to look at how prevalent antibodies are among Vermonters. But he also indicated that research would be through the CDC.

Researchers at UVM told me they feel their labs have proven that they can do this research and they want to partner with the state to make it happen, but they need state money.

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