Why do some coronavirus patients end up in the ICU while others are asymptomatic?


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin researcher is teaming up with an Austin-based lab to get a better understanding of why people react differently to the new coronavirus.

Dr. Esther Melamed, Department of Neurology Assistant Professor at Dell Med, said she’ll be collaborating with Babson Diagnostics on a plan to follow 200 COVID-19 patients over two years.

Babson Diagnostics has developed a serology test that looks for a person’s immune response to COVID-19.

Melamed said there’s so little we know about the new coronavirus right now.

“When a patient first gets tested, are they going to be the person who crashes and needs to go to the ICU, or are they going to have more or less an asymptomatic or mild disease?” she said.

She added, she’s also “very interested in seeing whether people might be developing other kinds of diseases as a result of being exposed to COVID. For example, lots of different viruses can predispose people to developing autoimmune diseases.”

Using Babson Diagnostics’ testing technology, the research will periodically test the participants over two years.

“What is the immune response, how quickly does it mount and how quickly does it decay after the levels increase,” said Eric Olson, CEO of Babson Diagnostics. “So our technology is well suited to detecting the strength of that immune response and track it over a course of time.”

Olson explained, “The immune response is how we ultimately believe we’re going to get past this disease. It’s something we don’t understand very well, but there’s a strong expectation that vaccines and herd immunity are ways that we as a population are going to get past this disease.”

Melamed said the research will follow people of all ages, including children and healthcare workers, trying to better understand different responses to the virus and what it means to be immune.

“The strength of immunity, the duration of immunity differs for different kinds of diseases and it differs between different people,” Olson told KXAN. “We don’t have answers yet whether antibodies provide protection against future infection.”

Melamed said, “A deeper understanding of the immunology over a longer period of time of the response to COVID will certainly help in the direction of designing more specific vaccines for each portion of the population.”

She added, “Understanding this virus will help us to deal with this pandemic in a safe way, but also will inform what could happen with other viruses and pandemics in the future.”

According to Melamed, only people who tested positive for the coronavirus can participate in the research. Some people will be referred by their doctors, but the researcher said she’s happy to talk to others who are interested.

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