A consortium that includes many of San Diego’s top medical and scientific research institutes has launched a large-scale COVID-19 screening effort to better understand the spread and prevalence of the virus in the local community, with an initial focus on evaluating healthcare workers and first responders. 

Known as the San Diego Epidemiology and Research for COVID Health (SEARCH) alliance, the cross-institutional collaboration is co-led by scientists and clinical researchers at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, Scripps Research and University of California San Diego. 

The research project is applying innovative technologies and screening strategies to paint a more comprehensive picture of how widely COVID-19 has spread—and continues to spread—throughout the San Diego area. All data collected will contribute to an epidemiological study that will encompass active cases of COVID-19 as well as its “silent spread” to people who never developed symptoms. 

“For health officials to gain the upper hand on a virus in our community, they need more complete information about how it’s moving through the population,” says Lauge Farnaes, MD, PhD, assistant medical director at Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine. “Our goal is to fill those gaps of knowledge by leveraging San Diego’s unique expertise in science and medicine.” 

As COVID-19 cases in San Diego began to rapidly increase in late March, the collaborators sprang into action. Through emails and Zoom meetings, they formulated a research proposal and created a scalable testing framework that would enable them to screen symptomatic individuals as well as people who may have COVID-19 without showing symptoms. 

In the initial phase of the program, nasopharyngeal swabs are used to collect samples from study participants at a local drive-up site and the samples are screened at research laboratories at Scripps Research and UC San Diego. Any positive results are then confirmed by Rady Children’s Institute of Genomic Medicine’s nationally accredited and certified clinical laboratory. 

In addition, the researchers are conducting “serosurvey” studies that look for antibodies to the virus. Serosurveys, short for serological surveys, involve finger-prick blood tests of people who haven’t been diagnosed with COVID-19 to gauge the extent to which SARS-CoV-2 has spread undetected. The program relies heavily on automation for screening, with the capacity to screen thousands of individuals daily while keeping costs low.

Since the study launched, SEARCH has enrolled more than 10,000 participants who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. Thus far, researchers have found that an average of two participants per every 1,000 enrolled had a positive result for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Participation is voluntary but currently limited to invited healthcare workers from participating hospitals, firefighters and other first responders. 

“The majority of our personnel are firefighters and lifeguards who regularly interact with the public and are at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. Our goal is for each and every employee to be screened,” says San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell. “We appreciate the opportunity to participate in the SEARCH study, which benefits our employees and the communities we serve.” 

SEARCH is also conducting large-scale SARS-CoV-2 genomic studies, analyzing changes in the virus genome from patient samples for clues to how the disease moved from city to city, and person to person. All genomic data gathered by SEARCH is deidentified and then made publicly available to the scientific community to expedite discoveries that will help end the pandemic. 

SEARCH’s core research team consists of the following members of the San Diego scientific and medical communities:

Kristian Andersen, PhD, Professor of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research

Lauge Farnaes, MD, PhD, Assistant Medical Director at Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine

Rob Knight, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Bioengineering and Computer Science & Engineering, and Founding Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego

Louise Laurent, MD, PhD, Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine

Gene Yeo, PhD, MBA, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Co-Director Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Graduate Program.at UC San Diego School of Medicine

The research is made possible by a dedicated team of laboratory staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, nurses, physicians and volunteers across the partner institutions. 

For more information, visit searchcovid.info.

SOURCE Scripps Research