(CN) — Texas has launched what is likely the nation’s largest state-level effort to estimate how many people have already been infected with Covid-19 and could be immune to the disease as a result.
The state’s health department on Monday announced the Texas CARES project – short for Coronavirus Antibody Response Survey – saying the effort will provide a “snapshot” of how many Texans have developed antibodies from the novel coronavirus and therefore likely have “some degree of immune protection.”
Health researchers aim to enroll about 100,000 Texans in the survey across geographic, racial and other demographic lines, though the survey will focus on specific groups of people like children, teachers and workers in the service and retail industries.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure that we get a picture of [antibody] prevalence across the state of Texas, not just in the major cities and not just in one geographic area,” Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the Houston-based University of Texas Health Science Center, said in an interview.
The center, known as UTHealth, will manage the survey alongside the Texas Department of State Health Services. While the Texas program isn’t the first of its kind in the U.S., it’s likely the largest statewide program so far, Boerwinkle said.
Researchers hope the survey will reveal more about how many people in Texas have been infected with the virus, but also about how the virus is spreading and how it’s impacting different populations.
Crucially, the survey could shed light on how long coronavirus antibodies last and to what degree they actually protect people from reinfection. Those findings could be particularly important given the recent news of a Nevada man becoming the first confirmed case of someone in the U.S. being infected twice and a recent study suggesting that Covid-19 can be even more severe the second time someone catches it.
“We’re going to look at how [antibody] prevalence changes over time, we’re going to ask questions about how long these antibodies last in our population,” Boerwinkle said. “We’re going to be able to see from these [antibody] positive individuals, what is the degree of protection that they enjoy, because we’ll be able to follow up – did they have symptoms of Covid later, even if they were positive?”
Boerwinkle said the researchers plan to survey the volunteers that are enrolled in the program up to three times, and that they’ll be watching to see if anyone loses the antibodies after gaining them.
“Hopefully that’s rare,” he said.
The survey results could help inform the state’s policies around reopening the economy, though Boerwinkle insisted the program would operate independently and would be free from political interference.
Earlier this month, Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced that bars in the state could reopen to limited capacity after months of being closed if local officials opt in. Leaders in the state’s most populated counties have so far declined to reopen bars with the virus surging again in hotspots like El Paso and the Panhandle. Across the state, Covid-19 hospitalizations are on the rise, though deaths have continued to fall from a peak over the summer.
A recent study from Stanford University estimated that fewer than 10% of Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, a finding that bellies the idea – reportedly embraced by the White House – that so-called herd immunity is a viable path forward to ending the pandemic.
Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Obama administration, echoed that criticism in a Washington Post opinion piece published Sunday, describing herd immunity as “the wrong, dead wrong, solution for the pandemic.”
President Trump has meanwhile sought to downplay a nationwide resurgence in coronavirus cases that could become a larger winter surge. On Sunday, the president claimed as he has in the past that the uptick is due to increased testing.
“The more you TEST, the more CASES you will be reporting. Very simple!” Trump wrote on Twitter, though the recent uptick in Covid-19 hospitalizations nationwide suggests the growth in virus cases is not simply due to more testing.
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