Limited data makes it tough to model coronavirus’s spread, experts say

Legislature funds NC’s first random sample testing for COVID-19
A scientist presents an antibody test for coronavirus in a laboratory of the Leibniz Institute...
A scientist presents an antibody test for coronavirus in a laboratory of the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (Leibniz IPHT) at the InfectoGnostics research campus in Jena, Germany, Friday, April 3, 2020.(AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
Updated: Apr. 13, 2020 at 7:09 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – The limited testing for COVID-19 has made it difficult for scientists to accurately predict the spread of the virus, two professors at UNC Charlotte told WBTV on Monday.

We asked Dr. Daniel Janies, the Carol Grotnes Belk Professor of Bioinformatics and Genomics and Dr. Colby Ford, an associate professor in UNC Charlotte’s data science department who specializes in modeling the spread of communicable disease, to weigh in on how accurate modeling of the virus is as testing remains limited throughout North Carolina and the country.

In a nutshell, both professors said the models are only as good as the data experts have to build them.

“We’re having to take educated guesses about the numbers that we put into the model so they can draw the curve for us,” Ford said. “One of the parameters that goes into this is the number of people that are currently infected. We don’t know that and we don’t know that because we don’t have enough tests.”

Janies pointed to smaller counties, like Iceland, that have been able to conduct widespread random sample testing of their population to get an accurate picture of the virus.

Doing so, he said, allows public health officials in those countries to better control the spread of the virus by detecting individuals who have had the virus with and without symptoms.

Previous: State health officials behind their own timeline on a COVID-19 surveillance plan as testing still lags

Right now, officials are largely only testing people who show symptoms and, even among those with symptoms, doctors are only testing those they feel need a diagnosis to receive treatment.

“Certainly, the amount of tests, because they’re directed in the united states to symptomatic people, is an undermeasurement of the number of cases out there,” he said.

Janies said it is important to make sure tests are verified as being accurate and effective, which takes time to develop. He pointed to the fact that the FDA had, just last week, granted authorization to a new blood test made by a company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park to test for COVID-19 antibodies.

Antibody testing, Janies explained, is not the same as testing for whether someone currently has the virus. Instead, he said, the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood indicates that person has previously been exposed to the virus.

“If we could ramp up the antibody testing, which is a much easier test, requires little to no equipment, it is not approved, I think we could get at these surveys in the style Iceland could afford to do and understand, really, the number of cases symptomatic or asymptomatic,” Janies said.

Late Monday afternoon, North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) announced the first random sample study for COVID-19 in the state.

“In support of the groundbreaking public health research, the legislature is providing $100,000 from its account to Wake Forest University to purchase and mail 1,000 at-home antibody kits to a representative sample of North Carolinians. Wake Forest Baptist Health researchers put some of the kits in the mail today,” Berger announced.

The study is being led by doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Health and Atrium Health.

In an interview with WBTV after his announcement of the study, Berger said the legislature is helping to fund the study as a way to get better, more accurate data as soon as possible.

“One of the challenges that we face is what’s the right decision to make in connection with reopening the economy or in connection with the measures that are currently in place? Unfortunately, a lot of the data that currently exists is merely the data that measures the number of people who have been symptomatic and have had tests,” Berger said.

Berger did not directly answer when asked why the legislature wasn’t working with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to execute the study but said he had been in touch with leaders in the Cooper administration.

“Well, we have had conversations with the secretary, conversations with the administration about this. We have urged that this be placed on a higher priority,” Berger said. “Unfortunately that has not happened up to this point. This survey is available. It is being done in conjunction with highly respected scientists around the country.”

Two weeks ago, North Carolina State Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore said the state would begin implementing additional surveillance methods to better track the virus without just relying on positive lab-confirmed cases.

Previous: Coronavirus test data only tells part of virus’ spread, state expert says

On Monday, a DHHS spokeswoman said the first results from the state’s syndromic surveillance network would be shared by the end of the week but could not provide details on when data from other surveillance techniques would be available.

Berger said the legislature would use the data from the random sample testing survey to make decisions when lawmakers come back into session at the end of the month.

“I think the sooner we have this information, the sooner we’ll be in a position to make decisions that are based on this kind of data in terms of what we’re doing in the economy,” he said.

In his interview, Janies, the professor of bioinformatics and genomics, said the random sample testing for antibodies is likely a reliable method to quickly survey a broader number of people for exposure to the virus.

“Part of the interesting things about the scalability of antibody testing is it probably could be used at higher scale for survey testing,” Janies said. “You put a little blood on a very small plastic cassette and it tells you if your body’s seen the virus or not.”

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