A study is underway by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences on who is being infected in the state by the coronavirus. Researchers are using blood samples from a control group to better understand how widespread the virus has become.
Early results suggest 3.5% of Arkansas residents have been infected. The study also shows minority groups across the state are disproportionately impacted.
- Hispanic: 17.8%
- Black/African American: 4.19%
- White/Caucasian: 1.27%
Dr. Joshua Kennedy, an associate professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital, has been leading the study. While it’s still ongoing, he said results at this point are a good starting point to understand the impact of the pandemic.
“1,500 samples, obviously as you’re looking at a population of over 3 million in the state of Arkansas, it's hard to extrapolate those numbers to everybody at this point. We still have two more waves of this study that are ongoing,” Kennedy said, noting that the second stage closed last week
“We now have 3,000 more specimens in the lab that we’re studying. The third wave will start in the middle of November and end December 17. So as we move forward, we’ll get a better understanding,” he said.
Regarding Hispanics leading the state among groups most impacted, Kennedy notes that many work in poultry processing plants in northwest Arkansas, where the virus quickly spread among employees. Currently, that part of the state is witnessing a rise in coronavirus cases among minority populations.
“Northwest Arkansas had a high rate of patients in the minority populations that were contracting COVID-19, and so we are cautious about that, but we also know that minority populations need to be careful as well as everyone else,” Kennedy said. “It just again shows the importance of the caution that we need to be taking right now.”
While minority groups are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic nationwide, Kennedy said it’s important that researchers be cautious in how they interpret that.
“You want to be careful and not over-interpret data, but we do know that the virus has affected minority populations in Arkansas and across the United States at a higher rate. Antibody production tells us if you’ve been infected in the past, and so a higher rate in those populations doesn't, it's really that wasn't very surprising because of what we’ve seen across the United States,” Kennedy says.
In regards to creating a vaccine for the coronavirus, Kennedy emphasizes the importance of transparency within the scientific community. He believes the vaccine needs to be manufactured in a safe manner that will generate trust by the population at large, which he says is dependent on communicating with the public about how the vaccine is created and later deemed safe to be on the market.
Once that stage has been reached, Kennedy says use of the vaccine should be universal.
“I realize as an immunologist that there may be people out there whose immune system can’t have some specific vaccines, so I’m very sure this would not be a live viral vaccine. This would be a vaccine that anyone could take,” Kennedy said. “So we need to be transparent as a scientific community so we can get the trust of the community and make sure that this vaccine gets out there.”
While the study indicates 3.5% of Arkansans have been infected by the virus, Kennedy says that as the study continues through December, more blood samples will provide a more accurate representation of the population as a whole. In addition to this information, the researchers are also hopeful to determine what the rate of asymptomatic infection might have been.
“3.5% is a low number, but as we started thinking about that, it just tells us that we have the opportunity still to make a difference. We can wear a mask, we should socially distance, we should be doing what the Arkansas Department of Health is telling us to do because at 3.5%, a majority of people haven't seen this virus yet,” Kennedy said.