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In Focus: How and What Scientists Learn from Serology Studies of COVID-19

Virus Outbreak Antibody Studies
Posted at 9:56 AM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 09:56:28-04

BALTIMORE — Long after the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, scientists will still be digging into the data.

As we looked into a Howard County serology study, WMAR-2 News decided to take a broader look at why studies like these are important to scientists.

Timeline for Answers
Dr. Matthew Memoli, the Director of LID Clinical Studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tells us that it could take years to learn the answers to questions about COVID-19.

"It depends on what questions you're trying to answer and so it could be, you know, a few weeks, if you had a very simple question, to many years, if you had more complex questions," he says.

But even if the COVID-19 pandemic ended tomorrow, the data collected would still be vital to scientists.

"In order for us to be prepared for the possibility of new viruses emerging, using this data could be very helpful," says Dr. Memoli. "And.. this data may not only be very specific to beta coronaviruses. We may be able to learn things that help us with influenza, help us with other respiratory viruses."

One of Dr. Memoli's colleagues at the NIH, is still studying the 1918 pandemic.

"After 100 years.. we're still trying to figure out various aspects of that pandemic," he explains. "It takes a long time, and oftentimes generations of scientists before we actually truly understand all the aspects that we'd like to."

Science behind Serology
Dr. Memoli gave a brief explanation of the science behind a study of serology.

"[It] is a study of a portion of the blood that we call serum, from, hopefully, a larger number of people," he says.

The blood has two components - the cells and the liquid. Serology studies look at the liquid for antibodies - to understand what you've been exposed to.

"It's not specific to COVID. In fact, it's not even specific to just infections, it's specific to anything foreign that potentially could get into your body and cause you to develop certain antibodies or other things that we can measure," he explains.

"We can try to get an idea of how many people have actually been exposed to the virus, or how many people have had an immune response to the virus or to a vaccination. And so we can measure various types of antibodies that could be induced from vaccination, some of the antibodies could be induced by natural infection, some of them could be induced simply just by exposure to the virus, and you don't even know that you were exposed."
Dr. Matthew Memoli

What Questions Doctors Are Asking
Dr. Memoli explained that different serological studies might be looking for different information, and the more data that is collected, the better and the more accurate the answers will be.

Some of the answers with the quicker turn-around include learning how many people in a community have some form of immunity to the virus.

"We can also try to learn more about the immunity itself - what types of antibodies are induced? How long do they last?" he says. "And then we can try to make correlations with various outcomes, to try to understand, are there even connections with these antibodies to how sick you get if you get sick?"