Staff at Cork University Hospital are participating in a new Covid-19 antibody study to assess the level of risk and exposure among healthcare staff to the virus.
The research will look at the level of Covid-19 antibodies in 500 healthcare staff working across Cork University Hospital (CUH).
The study is being led by infectious diseases consultants, occupational health physicians, and the paediatric department and supported by the Health Research Board (HRB) Clinical Research Facility (CRF).
A range of staff, including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, healthcare assistants, cleaners and porters, are volunteering to provide blood samples as part of the research.
The study will test for Covid-19 antibodies across a number of groups, including those who tested positive for the virus, those who were in close contact with someone who contracted the illness, those working in high risk areas, such as Covid-19 wards, and those working in low risk areas to determine the level of risk and exposure in each group.
Less than 50 healthcare staff at CUH contracted the virus and not all were infected through the workplace.
Other figures show that 392, or 5%, of healthcare workers across all HSE South hospitals and facilities contracted the virus to date.
The infection rate compares to almost one third of healthcare workers nationally being infected by Covid-19.
Lead investigator Dr Corinna Sadlier, an infectious disease consultant at CUH, said infection rates among healthcare staff at the hospital were “significantly lower” than other hospitals and that the research would shed light on the risk factors for infection.
“We’re looking at the prevalence of antibodies, which will indicate exposure or infection to Covid-19,” Dr Sadlier said. “Healthcare workers are a key group because they have the highest risk of infection."
The study will also provide insights on people who contract the virus but don’t have any symptoms.
Some individuals, she explained, may develop antibodies and others may not and there is still much that remains unknown about the virus.
“We don’t know whether the presence of an antibody means you’re immune to Covid-19. We don’t know how long, if you have an antibody, you will remain immune to Covid-19; it could be as low as three months,” Dr Sadlier said, adding that there were documented cases of people being re-infected by the virus.
“People may have had Covid-19 and they may not have detectable antibodies but they may still have some immunity. These are all really important questions,” she said.
“There is a huge amount we don’t know about the virus. We’re learning as we go and this is why research like this is so important,” she added.
Dr Sadlier expects to have preliminary results from the study by early July.
Ultimately, she said, the results will inform infection prevention and control measures, such as using personal protective equipment or PPE, at the hospital.
The study is also assessing the reliability of ‘finger prick’ antibody tests for Covid-19.
Researchers at the HRB clinical research facility also collated data for patients admitted with Covid-19 and are supporting the World Health Organisation ‘Solidarity’ trial, which is looking at treatment options.
“We are very grateful for the support of the HRB clinical research facility here in Cork as without them we would not be able to progress this research,” Dr Sadlier said.