COVID vaccine study includes 12,000 students, 22 colleges

The new trial may determine whether individuals can be infected and spread the virus after being vaccinated.
By: | March 29, 2021
Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky

A group of 12,000 students from 22 institutions have started a groundbreaking trial that will look at whether recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine can in fact be carriers of SARS-CoV-2 and spread it unknowingly to other individuals.

The students, who will be given the Moderna vaccine, will be taking part in the Prevent COVID U study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle that also involves robust nasal-swab testing to determine the potential likelihood of spread from those who are asymptomatic and have been vaccinated.

Experts say it is unlikely that the vaccines prevent COVID-19 infection, but this trial should give researchers a strong indication to whether that assumption is true.

“This is a question of extreme importance,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a White House briefing Friday. “This will help inform science-based decisions about mask use and about social distancing post-vaccination. “We hope that within the next five or so months, we’ll be able to answer the very important question about whether vaccinated people get infected asymptomatically. And if they do, do they transmit the infection to others?”

Vaccine doses will be given to two sets of participants, who will range in age from 18 to 26, four months apart. They will be asked to conduct daily nasal swab tests that they will drop off on campus for shipments to labs. In addition, they are also being asked to complete “electronic diaries” on an app to log their results. They also will undergo twice-per-week testing by health officials at their individual institutions. Those who do test positive will be isolated from their campus community and treated. All of them will be compensated, some netting almost $1,000.

Part of the effectiveness of the study will hinge on the close contacts of those who are receiving the vaccines. The Hutchinson Cancer Center and its college partners are asking students to provide a list of those whom they will be in contact with over the course of the study. Researchers can then determine how quickly infection happens, if at all, and then reach out to those contacts quickly. That should give them an indication of how often and when transmission does occur.

Hutchinson Cancer Center researchers note that the study will be able to determine what variants of the virus exist based on the testing samples that are submitted.

Colleges that are involved

Though much planning is already happening for the 2021-22 fall semester, colleges and universities should be able to use data from the study to make more informed decision about reopening, distancing and other protocols. As college students don’t often present symptoms when infected – nearly 50% of all those who contract COVID-19 don’t overall, according to researchers – it may be imperative to know the outcomes of those who do get infected and how that may affect the community, particularly if variants complicate plans in the future.

According to a New York Times report updated in early March, there have been more than 535,000 positive cases of COVID-19 on college campuses. With more than 120,000 of those coming since the beginning of the year, cases have risen about 30%. One positive from the report is that the increases have not filtered down into surrounding communities for the most part.

This study, backed by the National Institutes of Health with results likely to come in September, aims to show what protocols may be necessary even after vaccination.

Colleges taking part in the study include: Charles Drew University, Clemson University, Indiana University, Morehouse College, Northwestern University, Stony Brook University, Texas A&M – College Station, Texas A&M – Kingsville, University of Arizona, University of California – San Diego, University of Colorado, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Maryland, University of Nebraska, University of North Carolina, University of Virginia, University of Washington, Wake Forest Baptist Health, West Virginia University and Winston-Salem State University.