Immunology Research COVID-19 Coronavirus

New Study Investigates California's Possible Herd Immunity To COVID-19

MONTEREY, Calif. —

Researchers at Stanford Medicine are working to find out what proportion of Californians have already had COVID-19. The new study could help policymakers make more informed decisions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The team tested 3,200 people at three Bay Area locations on Saturday using an antibody test for COVID-19 and expect to release results in the coming weeks. The data could help to prove COVID-19 arrived undetected in California much earlier than previously thought.

"When you add it all up it would be naïve to think that California did not have some exposure," said Hanson.

The hypothesis that COVID-19 first started spreading in California in the fall of 2019 is one explanation for the state's lower than expected case numbers.

As of Tuesday, the state had 374 reported COVID-19 fatalities in a state of 40 million people, compared to New York which has seen 14 times as many fatalities and has a population half that of California. Social distancing could be playing a role but New York's stay-at-order went into effect on March 22, three days after California implemented its order.

"Something is going on that we haven't quite found out yet," said Victor Davis Hanson a senior fellow with Stanford's Hoover Institute.

Hanson said he thinks it is possible COVID-19 has been spreading among Californians since the fall when doctors reported an early flu season in the state. During that same time, California was welcoming as many as 8,000 Chinese nationals daily into our airports. Some of those visitors even arriving on direct flights from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

"When you add it all up it would be naïve to think that California did not have some exposure," said Hanson.

For years California has been the No. 1 travel destination for Chinese tourists in the United States. Even after the U.S. halted flights from China this winter Chinese travelers were still able to come to California on flights from Europe and Canada.

Hanson said through all of this the Chinese have been disingenuous about the timing of the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

"They originally said it was in early January, then it got backdated to December and then early December and now they are saying as early as November 17," said Hanson.

If Californians were exposed earlier than the rest of the country to COVID-19 we may have had a chance to build up some herd immunity to the disease. We won't know if that is the case until results from the Stanford Medicine study come back.

On Friday and Saturday, the study's co-lead Eran Bendavid coordinated testing at sites in San Jose, Los Gatos and Mountain View. The teams used an antibody test from the company Premier Biotech. Technicians use a finger prick to draw blood for the test and it can tell within minutes if a person developed antibodies to COVID-19.

The same brand test is being offered at a lab in Monterey and healthcare workers there are closely watching the study. Spenser Smith with ARCpoint Labs is aware of the theory that COVID-19 arrived here as early as the fall and that some people may have had the virus unknowingly.

"Knowing the levels as to which that happened would be great and one of the tools you can use is this test," said Smith

ARCpoint Labs started offering the antibody test in Monterey last week and has since tested 500 people. Smith said ARC has had some positive results for COVID-19 and is reporting all results to Monterey County's Public Health Department.

Hanson said the testing could help us as we start the recovery process. He does not advocate lifting social distancing rules right now but said testing could help get some people back to work.

"It is going to allow us to get back to normal much more quickly because there will be many more people than we think that have anti-bodies," he said.

Positive results in recovered folks could get nurses and caregivers back on the front lines of the pandemic as well as dishwashers and small business owners who keep our economy going.

The results of the study could also help us all to feel less scared of COVID-19. Limited testing has resulted in an artificially high death rate. The more people we can test who have mild symptoms, who are asymptomatic or who have recovered the less-lethal COVID-19 will seem.

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