Testing at risk healthcare workers for asymptomatic COVID-19 infection

A man leans against a balustradeThe COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the urgent need for researchers to know if a person had been exposed to the virus and had antibodies to protect against COVID-19 infection.

To facilitate what is known as a serological assay, Fiona Stanley Hospital (FSH) Cardiac Anaesthetist, Dr Warren Pavey (pictured right), and Heart and Lung Research Institute WA (HLRI-WA) scientist, Dr Herbert Ludewick developed the Sero-testing At Risk Hospital Staff for COVID-19 (StARS Project), funded by the Department of Health COVID-19 Research Grants Program.

As StARS Project Chief Investigator, Dr Pavey and his team at HLRI-WA, in collaboration with Royal Perth Hospital (RPH), tested a total of 804 ‘at risk’ healthcare workers across Emergency, Theatres, ICU and COVID-19 Clinics at FSH and RPH for evidence of past symptomatic and asymptomatic infection.

“Of the 804 ‘at risk’ staff tested, 406 were from FSH,” Dr Pavey said.

“At the time, the rate of spread of asymptomatic infection in the community and amongst healthcare workers was unknown; we wanted to find out if healthcare workers were at risk of getting COVID-19 from patients.”

An assay such as this provides a means of determining the rate of asymptomatic infection and who may have developed immunity and who has not. It’s also a way to identify individuals who have mounted a strong immune response who may then be able to donate their antibodies to protect or treat another person who is not immune and to study the immune response of those infected and assess the antibody response to vaccines.

In partnership with Professor Florian Kramer’s group at Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, NY, USA, the StARS Project group synthesised the COVID-19 spike protein as a whole as well as the important receptor binding domain. Both of these proteins are critical for virus entry into the body as well as targets for host antibodies.

“Using these, our group developed the first Enzyme Linked Immune Sorbent Assay (ELISA) based serological assay to accurately confirm COVID-19 infection in WA,” Dr Pavey said.

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Last Updated: 18/08/2021