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URMC researchers will lead study of COVID-19 immunity 

The University of Rochester Medical Center is launching a federally-funded study of the immune response to COVID-19, work that lead researchers said would aid vaccine development as well as shape when and how government officials proceed with reopening society.

click to enlarge A University of Rochester lab worker examines samples. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER MEDICAL CENTER
  • A University of Rochester lab worker examines samples.
The study’s central focus will be determining the extent to which people are immune to infection once they recover from COVID-19 and how long that immunity lasts, two of the lead researchers explained during a news briefing Thursday.

“We don’t know very much about how well infection results in protective immunity,” said David Topham, one of the lead researchers and a professor in URMC’s microbiology and immunity department. “You can get reinfected with coronaviruses — the regular seasonal ones — and so it’s possible that you might be protected for a short time after this COVID infection, but we don’t know how long that lasts.”

For the study, researchers will recruit up to 100 people of all ages from the Rochester area. They’re seeking participants who have tested positive for the virus, who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 but who haven’t been tested, or who live in the same household as someone with COVID-19.

Researchers will follow participants for 90 days and collect samples that allow them to track the production of antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We’re interested in understanding how your body’s immune or defense system responds to an infection over time and specifically how you develop protection against COVID-19 after you’ve been infected,” said Dr. Angela Branche, a respiratory illness researcher at URMC who will also lead the study.

Topham and Branche said they’re also interested in how transmission of the virus occurs within households, what natural immunity looks like compared to vaccine-induced immunity, how long immunity from a vaccine might last, how long patients are infectious, and whether people can have pre-existing “cross-reactive” immunity.

“We’re also interested in understanding the rate of asymptomatic infection,” Branche said. “We know based on some of the studies that have been coming out worldwide that there is a significant proportion of people who may be infected but may not have very obvious symptoms.”

Those are the people who “may be transmitting most efficiently” because they aren’t aware that they have an infection, Branche said.

Topham also laid out how the research could help government and public health leaders as they try to figure out how to reopen society.

The study will allow researchers to “characterize and recognize a COVID-specific immune response” and how that can be measured in broader testing, Topham said. That, in turn, will help officials determine the prevalence of infection in their communities and whether the population has reached levels of immunity where they feel comfortable opening things back up, he added. It could also help officials avoid easing restrictions too soon.

“There’s a phenomenon with virus infections called herd immunity,” Topham said. “And once enough of a population is infected and immune, the chances that the virus will spread are diminished simply because there are fewer targets for the virus to latch on to.”

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the agency headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, is providing $5 million for the study.The research is being conducted by URMC’s New York Influenza Center of Excellence, of which Topham is director. Dr. Ann Falsey, an internationally recognized respiratory disease expert, will work alongside Topham and Branche as a lead researcher.

Branche and Falsey are also leading a trial of the antiviral drug remdesivir as a potential COVID-19 treatment. That research, which focuses on hospitalized adults with COVID-19, is occurring through URMC’s Vaccine Trials and Evaluation Unit.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at

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