Google sister-company Verily is launching an antibody research study for Covid-19

Key Points
  • Verily is adapting its existing clinical trial technology, Project Baseline, to the coronavirus. 
  • Its initial focus will be to study antibody testing. 
  • There are still many unknowns when it comes to antibody tests. And there's a wide variation in the accuracy of the tests. 

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Alphabet's life sciences company, Verily, is launching a research project with an initial focus on understanding how the human immune system responds to the coronavirus. 

The company is adapting its existing study, Project Baseline, which aims to use the latest technology for longitudinal health care research, to support the pandemic. Its first initiative, Baseline Antibody Research, offers serology testing to those who have already received a nasal swab test from Verily's testing program.

Verily, which spun out of Google Life Sciences, has already rolled out testing sites across various sites in California for those who suspect they might have the virus. 

A serology test is designed to detect antibodies, which circulate in our blood to help fight off infections. Researchers see some potential in using antibody testing to understand how prevalent Covid-19 is in a community, and studies are already underway.

But there are wide variations in accuracy across the various test markers. These tests are producing a lot of false positive and false negative results. For that reason, many public health experts are wary about overly relying on antibody testing for so-called "immunity passports," as we don't yet know whether a positive result means there's conferred immunity. 

Verily's chief medical officer Dr. Jessica Mega said the company is trying to learn more about antibody testing, given that there are still many unknowns about what a positive or negative result means for people. Mega spoke at CNBC's Healthy Returns conference about the importance of testing as a tool for public health as the country starts to re-open. 

Participants in the Verily study will be asked to provide blood and nasal samples three times over the course of ten weeks. The study is open to those who have been diagnosed with the virus, as well as those who tested negative. The company has stressed that although Baseline study participants need a Google account, it won't share people's health information with Google for advertising purposes. 

Participants might also be asked about their lifestyle and mental health via surveys. "Such information from healthy individuals can help quantify the public health impact of the disease, and provide a basis for better understanding the changes caused by COVID-19," the company wrote in a blog post published on Monday.

The initial study is limited to California for now, but Mega said there's the potential to expand nationally. 

In addition to its antibody testing work, Mega also told CNBC that Verily is providing its technology to a clinical trial already underway to understand whether hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, can reduce the risk for medical workers. Verily said the focus is to study whether hydroxychloroquine can, and should, be administered prophylactically, meaning on a preventative basis.

Hydroxychloroquine has been touted as a Covid-19 treatment by President Trump and others, but some early studies are showing poor results and an increased risk of side effects, and there's a lack of randomized double-blind trials (the gold standard). More studies are still needed to gauge the overall safety and efficacy of the drug, including whether it makes sense to administer it to medical personnel. 

"The nation needs answers on this front," said Dr. Mega.

Dr. Mega said that her company is working closely with researchers at Duke University as part of the Healthcare Worker Exposure Response and Outcomes (HERO) research program. Duke has stressed that the results will be shared with the wider scientific community on an ongoing basis. 

Need to Know: Seeking More and Better Testing-Healthy Returns
Need to Know: Seeking More and Better Testing-Healthy Returns