Dr. Todd Lucas

A team of Michigan State University researchers and their partners are leading a study with a pair of formidable goals: communicating effectively about the value of COVID-19 antibody testing and better understanding why COVID-19 causes a disproportionate number of African Americans to suffer severe cases and deaths.

November 11, 2020

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced it will fund the study led by Todd Lucas, PhD, a Flint-based C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health in the College of Human Medicine. The project is part of the NIH Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet) initiative, made possible by an over $300 million emergency appropriation to the National Cancer Institute. The appropriation's goal is to address the urgent need to understand immune responses to the novel coronavirus. The Michigan State University-led team proposed a five-year study $3.8 million project and have thus far been awarded over $1.2 million for the first phase, which will take place over two years. 

In partnership with the Flint Community Based Organizations and Partners (CBOP), the Michigan State University research team plans to produce brief video tutorials about the potential value of antibody testing in the fight against COVID-19, which will be disseminated to the Flint community. The study will also furnish home-based collection kits to gather saliva samples from willing study participants. In partnership with the Environmental Health, Microbiology, and Immunology Lab (EHMIL) at Johns Hopkins University, saliva samples will be analyzed to measure the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. In partnership with Salimetrics – an international leader in salivary bioscience – saliva samples will also be used to measure a panel of over a dozen inflammation biomarkers that might be linked to SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Ultimately, the researchers hope to address racial disparities in COVID-19 by identifying ways to communicate effectively about the value of antibody testing and a better understanding of the potential role of inflammation in COVID-19.   

“COVID-19 has made clear that racial health disparities continue to plague this country,” Lucas said. “We can potentially learn a lot about COVID-19 disparities and, hopefully, better address them by understanding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, including how these antibodies might be connected to inflammation in the body. But doing so will require developing strategies to talk effectively about the need for and value of antibody testing.”

African Americans makeup 14 percent of Michigan’s population but account for more than 33 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths. Recruiting African Americans for medical studies and clinical trials is often challenging, due in part to historical distrust of the medical profession. Yet, African American participation in antibody surveillance studies is vital to addressing ongoing COVID-19 disparities. 

Study participants will be recruited through the Flint Registry – a CDC-funded initiative spearheaded by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in response to the Flint water crisis, which aims to connect affected Flint residents to available resources and support.

While the study initially will focus on Flint, results will inform the parallel efforts of other SeroNet-funded researchers in real-time. Study results may also produce insights for effectively conducting antibody surveillance on a broader scale, potentially including statewide and beyond.   

In addition to Lucas, the Michigan State University research team includes Kent Key, PhD; Debra Furr-Holden, PhD; Nicole Jones, PhD; Nigel Paneth, MD; Maria Lapinski, PhD; and Ahnalee Brincks, PhD. Douglas Granger, PhD, at Salimetrics, and Christopher Heaney, PhD, at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health also are helping with the study, which is supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01CA260469. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.